Conscientious objection to participation in abortion by midwives and nurses: a systematic review of reasons

Valerie Fleming Lucy Frith, Ans Luyben, Beate Ramsayer

Abstract

Background

Freedom of conscience is a core element of human rights respected by most European countries. It allows abortion through the inclusion of a conscience clause, which permits opting out of providing such services. However, the grounds for invoking conscientious objection lack clarity. Our aim in this paper is to take a step in this direction by carrying out a systematic review of reasons by midwives and nurses for declining, on conscience grounds, to participate in abortion.

Method

We conducted a systematic review of ethical arguments asking, “What reasons have been reported in the argument based literature for or against conscientious objection to abortion provision by nurses or midwives?” We particularly wanted to identify any discussion of the responsibilities of midwives and nurses in this area. Search terms were conscientious objection and abortion or termination and nurse or midwife or midwives or physicians or doctors or medics within the dates 2000–2016 on: HEIN legal, Medline, CINAHL, Psychinfo, Academic Search Complete, Web of Science including publications in English, German and Dutch. Final articles were subjected to a rigorous analysis, coding and classifying each line into reason mentions, narrow and broad reasons for or against conscientious objection.

Results

Of an initial 1085 articles, 10 were included. We identified 23 broad reasons, containing 116narrow reasons and 269 reason mentions. Eighty one (81) narrow reasons argued in favour of and 35 against conscientious objection. Using predetermined categories of moral, practical, religious or legal reasons, “moral reasons” contained the largest number of narrow reasons (n =  58). The reasons and their associated mentions in this category outnumber those in the sum of the other three categories.

Conclusions

We identified no absolute argument either for or against conscientious objection by midwives or nurses. An invisibility of midwives and nurses exists in the whole debate concerning conscientious objection reflecting a gap between literature and practice, as it is they whom WHO recommend as providers of this service. While the arguments in the literature emphasize the need for provision of conscientious objection, a balanced debate is necessary in this field, which includes all relevant health professionals.


Fleming V, Frith L, Luyben A, Ramsayer B. Conscientious objection to participation in abortion by midwives and nurses: a systematic review of reasons. BMC Medical Ethics. 2018;19:31. doi:10.1186/s12910-018-0268-3.