Freedom of Conscience in Health Care: Distinctions and Limits

Abstract

The widespread emergence of innumerable technologies within health care has complicated the choices facing caregivers and their patients. The escalation of knowledge and technical innovation has been accompanied by an erosion of moral and ethical consensus among health providers that is reflected in the abandonment of the Hippocratic Oath as the immutable bedrock of medical ethics. Ethical conflicts arise when the values of health professionals collide with the expressed wishes of patients or the dictates of regulatory bodies and administrators. Increasing attempts by groups outside of the medical profession to limit freedom of conscience for health providers has raised concern and consternation among some health professionals. The personal and professional impact of health professionals surrendering freedom of conscience and participating in actions they deem malevolent or unethical has not been adequately studied and may not be inconsequential when considering the recognized impact of other circumstances of coerced complicity. We argue that the distinction between the two ways that freedom of conscience is exercised (avoiding a perceived evil and seeking a perceived good) provides a rational basis for a principled limitation of this fundamental freedom.

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