As medical treatments advance, the need to accommodate conscientious objection in healthcare is more pressing
Reproduced with permission
David S. Oderberg*
Imagine that you are a cosmetic surgeon and a patient asks you to make them look like a lizard. Would you have ethical qualms? Or perhaps you are a neurosurgeon approached by someone wanting a brain implant – not to cure a disability but to make them smarter via cognitive enhancement. Would this go against your code of professional ethics? With the rapid advance of medical technology, problems of conscience threaten to become commonplace. Perhaps explicit legal protection for conscientious objection in healthcare is the solution.
There is limited statutory protection for those performing abortion, and there is some shelter for IVF practitioners. Passive euthanasia (withdrawal of life support with intent to hasten death) is also part of the debate over doctors’ conscience rights. That’s about it as far as UK law is concerned – though freedom of conscience is enshrined in numerous conventions and treaties to which we are party. Abortion, artificial reproductive technologies (involving embryo research and storage) and passive euthanasia are the flashpoints of current and historic controversy in medical ethics. The debate over freedom of conscience in healthcare goes to the heart of what it means to be a medical practitioner.
Curing, healing, not harming: these are the guiding principles of the medical and nursing professions. But what if there is reasonable and persistent disagreement over whether a treatment is in the patient’s best interests? What if a practitioner believes that treating their patient in a particular way is not good for them? What if carrying out the treatment would be a violation of the healthcare worker’s ethical and/or religious beliefs? Should they be coerced into acting contrary to their conscience?
Such coercion, whether it involve threats of dismissal, denial of job opportunities or of promotion, or shaming for not being a team player, is a real issue. Yet in what is supposed to be a liberal, pluralistic and tolerant society, compelling people to violate their deeply held ethical beliefs – making them do what they think is wrong – should strike one as objectionable.
Freedom of conscience is not only about performing an act but about assisting with it. There are some people who ask doctors to amputate healthy limbs. If you were a surgeon, my guess is that you would refuse. But what about being asked to help out? Would you hand over the instruments to a willing surgeon? Or supervise a trainee surgeon to make sure they did the amputation correctly? If conscientious objection is to have any substance in law, it must also cover these acts of assistance.
This country has a long and honourable tradition of accommodating conscientious objectors in wartime – those who decline to fight or to assist or facilitate the fighting by, say, making munitions. They can be assigned to other duties that may support the war effort yet are so remote a form of cooperation as not to trouble their consciences. In any war, the objectors are a tiny fraction of the combat-eligible population. Yet when it comes to one’s rights, do numbers matter? Has their existence ever prevented a war from being carried out to the utmost? I fail to see, then, why we are tolerant enough to make adjustments for conscientious objectors in the midst of a national emergency, yet in peacetime would be reluctant to afford similar adjustments to members of one of the most esteemed professions.
Do we think medical practitioners should be no more than state functionaries, dispensing whatever is legal no matter how much it is in conflict with personal conscience and professional integrity – lest they be hounded out of the profession? Some academics think expulsion is not good enough. Or should healthcare workers be valets, providing whatever service their patients demand? Perhaps when practitioners find themselves faced with demands for the sorts of treatment I’ve mentioned – or perhaps gene editing treatments or compulsory sterilisation, society will act. Or maybe by then it will be too little, too late.
David S Oderberg is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, and author of Declaration in support of conscientious protection in medicine