LEAF celebrates today’s release of the Ontario Court of Appeal’s ruling in Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada et al. v. College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), which delivers a victory for women’s reproductive rights.
The Court’s ruling is an important contribution to the advancement of women’s and girls’ equality. It recognizes that enhancing access to reproductive health services is a valid and constitutional objective. It affirms that women’s right to autonomy over their deeply personal, individual health and life choices cannot be superseded by the personal views of health professionals. It confirms the importance of access to reproductive health services for women’s health and wellbeing, and signals that the Court will protect initiatives that safeguard women’s access to these services.
Details of the Case
This case involved a challenge to the CPSO’s Human Rights Policy and Medical Assistance in Dying Policy, which require doctors who are unwilling on religious grounds to offer certain kinds of care—including contraception and abortion services—to provide patients with an “effective referral” to another physician. The policies also require doctors to provide emergency services: for example emergency abortions for women experiencing life-threatening pregnancies.
The appellants argued that the policies interfere with their religious freedom. LEAF argued that the policies protect women’s right to access these services, and that this justifies interference with the appellants’ religious beliefs. The Court concluded that the policies facilitate equitable access to health care for all Ontarians, particularly the most marginalized. This important goal justified the interference with the appellants’ religious freedom.
LEAF welcomes this result, which protects and affirms women’s right to access reproductive health services, and their right to exercise autonomy over their reproductive lives. As LEAF argued in Court, access to reproductive health care lies at the heart of women’s reproductive choice, which is fundamental to women’s equality.
The Court agreed with LEAF that “due to historic inequalities in accessing the medical system, many women are dependent on physician approval to access reproductive services.” Since physicians act as gatekeepers to the system, an effective referral may be the only channel through which these women can access the care they need.
The Court further agreed that refusals by medical professionals to provide referrals has a disproportionate impact on women from marginalized backgrounds, noting that the effective referral policy is particularly important for women who are new immigrants, youth, Indigenous women, women in remote or rural communities, and people with limited economic means. Denying these women a referral is tantamount to denying them access to the service altogether, with all the resulting harms including unwanted pregnancy, psychological stress, and increased risk of morbidity.
In LEAF’s view, this decision is significant for the following reasons:
- It upholds and protects women’s right to meaningful access to health care;
- It recognizes that denying women access to reproductive health services causes women physical and psychological harm;
- It conclusively confirms that facilitating women’s access to health care is a pressing and substantial objective under Canada’s constitution;
- It recognizes the historic barriers to women’s health care and takes steps to correct this historic inequity; and
- It provides a foundation for LEAF to continue to advocate for women’s right to meaningful access to reproductive services.
LEAF has long argued that women’s right to control when and how they have children is essential to women’s equality rights. As noted by LEAF Staff Counsel Karen Segal, “Reproductive freedom is foundational to women’s equality in work, school, and at home, and is essential to women’s personal autonomy and human dignity. Feminists have fought for abortion services to be legalized, but that change means little if reproductive health care is not accessible.”
The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) works to advance the substantive equality rights of women and girls through litigation, law reform, and public education. Since 1985, we have intervened in landmark cases that have advanced equality in Canada—helping to prevent violence, eliminate discrimination in the workplace, provide better maternity benefits, ensure a right to pay equity, and allow access to reproductive freedoms. For more information, please visit www.leaf.ca.
Staff Counsel, LEAF
T: 416-595-7170 x2003