Conscience and Conscientious Objection in Health Care

An ARC Discovery Project, running from 2015 to 2017

Summary of project

Conscientious objection is a central topic in bioethics and is becoming more ever important. This is hardly surprising if we consider the liberal trend in developments of policies about abortion and other bioethical issues worldwide. In recent decades the right to abortion has been granted by many countries, and increasingly many conservative and/or religious doctors are being asked to perform an activity that clashes with their deepest moral and/or religious values.

Debates about conscientious objection are set to become more intense given the increase in medical options which are becoming available or may well be available soon (e.g. embryonic stem cell therapies, genetic selection, human bio-enhancement, sex modification), and given the increasingly multicultural and multi-faith character of Australian society. Not only will doctors conscientiously object to abortion, and to practices commonly acknowledged as morally controversial, but some of them may also object to a wide range of new and even established practices that conflict with their personal values for example, Muslim doctors refusing to examine patients of the opposite sex.

Defining conscientious objection and identifying reliable markers for it, as well as setting the boundaries of legitimate conscientious objection through clear and justifiable principles, are difficult but pressing tasks.

This project advances bioethical debate by producing a philosophically and psychologically informed analysis of conscience, and by applying this to discussions about the legitimate limits to conscientious objection in health care.


Chief Investigator Dr Steve Clarke, Charles Sturt University

Chief Investigator Prof. Jeanette Kennett, Macquarie University

Partner Investigator Prof. Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford

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One thought on “Conscience and Conscientious Objection in Health Care”

  1. Note that the issue is characterized as one of “conscientious objection.” The problem, as defined by this group, is that too many people around the world refuse to do what they believe to be gravely wrong. Their project is intended to ‘solve’ this ‘problem.’ Professor Savulescu and others have proposed, for example, that, where euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal, the state or state agencies should compel physicians to personally kill patients or help them commit suicide; even collaboration in homicide and suicide by referring patients to others who will do the killing is not good enough. Agitation for compulsory referral or involvement in abortion and other morally contested procedures has proven to be a dress rehearsal for compulsory involvement in homicide and suicide. Savulescu J, Schuklenk U. (2016) Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception. Bioethics. doi:10.1111/bioe.12288

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