Nurses Cannot be Good Catholics

BMJ Blogs

John Olusegun Adenitire

It seems that if you are a nurse you cannot be a good Catholic.  Or, better: if you want to work as a nurse then you might have to give up some of your religious beliefs.  A relatively recent decision of the UK Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, seems to suggest so.  In a legal decision that made it into the general press (see here), the Supreme Court decided that two Catholic midwives could not refuse to undertake administrative and supervisory tasks connected to the provision of abortions.

To be sure, no one asked the nurses to directly assist in the provision of abortions.  The Abortion Act 1967 says that “No person shall be under any duty … to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.”  The Nurses argued that this provision of the Act should be understood widely.  Not only should they be allowed to refuse to directly assist in abortion services: they should also be entitled to refuse to undertake managerial and supervisory tasks if those were linked to abortion services.  The nurses’ employer was not impressed; neither was the Supreme Court which ruled that the possibility to conscientiously object only related to a ‘hands-on’ capacity in the provision of abortion services. . . [Full text]

 

The unsettled status of conscientious objection in the UK

BioEdge

Michael Cook

What are the rights of doctors who have a conscientious objection to certain procedures in the United Kingdom? The slightly confusing status quo is the subject of an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics by a Cambridge University academic, John Adenitire.

Dr Adenitire sketches a gradation of hostility towards conscientious objection.

1. At the very top there are Julian Savulescu and others who have argued that conscientious objection is “a door to a Pandora’s box of idiosyncratic, bigoted, discriminatory medicine” and has little place in modern medical practice. This is not a widely shared view.

2. Then there is the British Medical Association (BMA), the profession’s “trade union”, which defends conscientious objection only in three specific scenarios. It “should ordinarily be limited to those procedures where statute recognises their right (abortion and fertility treatment) and to withdrawing life-prolonging treatment from patients who lack capacity, where other doctors are in a position to take over the care.”

3. And then there is the General Medical Council (GMC), the profession’s regulator in the UK, which allows conscientious objection, albeit with a number of caveats. According to its 2013 policy statement, Personal beliefs and medical practice: “You may choose to opt out of providing a particular procedure because of your personal beliefs and values, as long as this does not result in direct or indirect discrimination against, or harassment of, individual patients or groups of patients. This means you must not refuse to treat a particular patient or group of patients because of your personal beliefs or views about them.‡ And you must not refuse to treat the health consequences of lifestyle choices to which you object because of your beliefs.”

4. Most accommodating of all is a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the British case of Eweida in 2013. It applied Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights to several cases of discrimination in the UK. Article 9 guarantees “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, “subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

It is Dr Adenitire’s contention that the Eweida ruling “effectively provides that medical professionals have the right to conscientiously object to providing certain healthcare services well beyond the scope endorsed by the BMA”.

This implies that “Given the unsettled nature of the law on the topic, [National Health Service] employers will have to proceed very cautiously as it will not always be clear whether denying a request will be considered lawful by a court. This entails that NHS bodies may be at risk of expensive legal challenges by medical professionals whose requests have been denied.”

Dr Adenitire therefore believes that the BMA’s policy should be changed to align more closely to the Eweida ruling.

However, the law is still unsettled and Dr Adenitire is not necessarily hostile to proposals for legalised assisted dying which are currently being debated in the UK. In an unpublished paper he goes on to argue that in certain circumstances doctors already have a “conscience-based right to provide assistance in dying”.


cclicense-some-rightsThis article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

The BMA’s guidance on conscientious objection may be contrary to human rights law

J Med Ethics doi:10.1136/medethics-2015-103222

John Olusegun Adenitire

Abstract

It is argued that the current policy of the British Medical Association (BMA) on conscientious objection is not aligned with recent human rights developments. These grant a right to conscientious objection to doctors in many more circumstances than the very few recognised by the BMA. However, this wide-ranging right may be overridden if the refusal to accommodate the conscientious objection is proportionate. It is shown that it is very likely that it is lawful to refuse to accommodate conscientious objections that would result in discrimination of protected groups. It is still uncertain, however, in what particular circumstances the objection may be lawfully refused, if it poses risks to the health and safety of patients. The BMA’s policy has not caught up with these human rights developments and ought to be changed. [Full text]