Conscientious objection in healthcare and the duty to refer

Christopher Cowley

Abstract

Although some healthcare professionals have the legal right to conscientiously object to authorise or perform certain lawful medical services, they have an associated duty to provide the patient with enough information to seek out another professional willing to authorise or provide the service (the ‘duty to refer’). Does the duty to refer morally undermine the professional’s conscientious objection (CO)? I narrow my discussion to the National Health Service in Britain, and the case of a general practitioner (GP) being asked by a pregnant woman to authorise an abortion. I will be careful not to enter the debate about whether abortion should be legalised, or the debate about whether CO should be permitted—I will take both as given. I defend the objecting GP’s duty to refer against those I call the ‘conscience absolutists’, who would claim that if a state is serious enough in permitting the GP’s objection in the first place (as is the UK), then it has to recognise the right to withhold any information about abortion.


Cowley C. Conscientious objection in healthcare and the duty to refer.  Journal of Medical  Ethics 2017;43:207-212.

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