Bioethics Blogs

In Defense of a Physician’s Right of Conscientious Objection

Guest post by Cheyn Onarecker, MD

In their recent “Sounding Board” piece in the New England Journal of Medicine (subscription required), Ronit Stahl, PhD, and Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, denounce the rights of physicians and other health care professionals to opt out of certain procedures because of a moral or religious belief. The interests and rights of the patient, they state, should always trump those of the clinician. The only role for conscientious objection, in their view, is a limited one, when the appropriateness of a treatment or procedure is being debated.

Once a professional society determines that a treatment is acceptable, the physician must comply or get out of medicine altogether. Stahl and Ezekiel lament that the American Medical Association (AMA) and other medical societies support conscience rights, but, I believe the arguments they advance to eliminate such rights are not convincing and would jeopardize the future of medicine.

First, although the well-being of patients is one of the primary goals of medicine, there has always been a balance between the needs of patients and physicians. Otherwise, physicians would work 24 hours a day, with no time off for family, friends, or other pursuits. Physicians would be expected to respond to all patient requests, day or night. The question is not whether physicians should put patients’ needs above their own, but where the line should be drawn between the needs of the patient and the physician. In emergencies, a patient’s needs triumph, but other situations are not always so clear. When it comes to requests for treatments that violate a physician’s deepest moral convictions, no physician should be forced to cross over the line.

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.