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

[Full text]

Conscientious objection in healthcare, referral and the military analogy

Abstract:  An analogy is sometimes drawn between the proper treatment of conscientious objectors in healthcare and in military contexts. In this paper, I consider an aspect of this analogy that has not, to my knowledge, been considered in debates about conscientious objection in healthcare. In the USA and elsewhere, tribunals have been tasked with the responsibility of recommending particular forms of alternative service for conscientious objectors. Military conscripts who have a conscientious objection to active military service, and whose objections are deemed acceptable, are required either to serve the military in a non-combat role, or assigned some form of community service that does not contribute to the effectiveness of the military. I argue that consideration of the role that military tribunals have played in determining the appropriate form of alternative service for conscripts who are conscientious objectors can help us to understand how conscientious objectors in healthcare ought to be treated. Additionally, I show that it helps us to address the vexed issue of whether or not conscientious objectors who refuse to provide a service requested by a patient should be required to refer that patient to another healthcare professional.

Clarke S.  Conscientious objection in healthcare, referral and the military analogy. J Med Ethics 2016;0:1–4. doi:10.1136/medethics-2016-103777