Bioethics News

Why should we respect conscientious objectors?

A powerful debate over conscientious objection is brewing in Canada. The Canadian parliament is drafting a law to implement a Supreme Court order to allow assisted suicide and euthanasia. Some doctors fear that they will be forced to perform the procedures or refer patients to more compliant doctors.

Writing in the Canadian Family Physician, Dr Nancy Naylor, a general practitioner, declared that she had decided to retire:

“I refuse to let anyone or any organization dictate my moral code. For this reason I am not renewing my licence to practice medicine . I have practiced full scope family medicine , including palliative care for the past 37 years and solely palliative care for the past 3 years. I have no wish to stop. But I will not be told that I must go against my moral conscience to provide standard of care.”

Appeals to conscience are emotionally powerful. But do doctors have a right to appeal to their “moral conscience” to refuse to carry out legal procedures?

Today one of Canada’s most influential bioethicists and a colleague present the case for ignoring conscience claims in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Professor Udo Schuklenk, who is also editor of the journal Bioethics, and Ricardo Smalling, both of Queen’s University in Ontario, contend that “Forcing patients to live by the conscientious objectors’ values constitutes an unacceptable infringement on the rights of patients.”

In a nutshell their argument is that medical professionals have made a contract with society. In return for a lucrative monopoly on the provision of an essential service, patients have a right to demand that they provide socially acceptable and legal services.

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.