Fiduciary Duties Limit Physicians’ Freedom of Conscience

Emma Ryman discusses conscientious objections and the physician-patient relationship.


The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons has recently released a draft policy on “Professional Obligations and Human Rights.” One of the goals of this policy is to clarify the College’s position on physician conscientious objections, which are objections some physicians have to providing certain medical services on moral or religious grounds. More specifically, the policy is intended to clarify what a physician who has a conscientious objection to a medical service may or may not do when faced with a request for such a service.

Margaret Somerville’s response to this draft policy has stirred up a great deal of controversy over the College’s requirements for conscientious objectors. She rails against the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeon’s alleged intention to force Ontario physicians who have conscientious objections to procedures like abortions out of the profession. Unfortunately, Sommerville’s piece is as inflammatory as it is misinformed. Somerville’s concerns seem to stem from a quote she attributes to spokesperson Dr. Marc Gabel, in which he allegedly states that, “physicians unwilling to provide or facilitate abortion for reasons of conscience should not be family physicians.” However, the College has written a letter to the National Post explaining that Dr. Gabel has never made such a claim and requesting a correction.

Jan Steen, Doctor’s Visit (1661-2)

Most of Somerville’s piece is spent arguing against this imagined policy change, and criticizing so-called progressive “crusaders” who “seek out physicians with conscientious objections and demand treatment they know they will refuse” (a category of people that is also surely imaginary).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.