UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Favours of a Right to Conscientious Objection in the Context of Abortion
News Release, 11 March, 2016
On the occasion of a conference organized by the ECLJ at UN
headquarters in Geneva, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN
Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, spoke in
favor of the right of medical staff to refuse to participate in
performing an abortion or euthanasia. He mentioned the case of a
midwife who was harshly sentenced in Sweden for having refused
to participate in an abortion and was forced into "professional
He considers that this right, based on freedom of conscience,
should extend to the medical staff directly involved in the
matter, as long as their objection is well-founded on a strong
and deep conviction.
The Special Rapporteur indicated that the right to
conscientious objection is not only based on the right to
"freedom of conscience", but also on Article 1 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes that all human
beings "are endowed with reason and conscience." The Special
Rapporteur of the United Nations on Freedom of Religion or
Belief is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights
Council to defend and promote freedom of religion or belief
Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Grégor Puppinck, Director of the ECLJ, chaired the
conference. He presented an overview of the problem, in
particular outlining the relationship between law and conscience
in view of justice and common good. He also stressed that it
would be unjust to legalize controversial practices, such as
euthanasia or abortion, in the name of tolerance, and then to
refuse, once legalized, to tolerate those who object to
personally taking part into these practices.
Claire La Hougue, Esquire and Fellow of the ECLJ, emphasized
that the right to conscientious objection against abortion and
euthanasia directly results from the nature of these acts. These
acts are not intended to cure, but to end the life of a human
being, which is fundamentally contrary to the goal of medicine.
The right not to participate in these practices is
systematically recognized in legislation (with the exception of
few countries), but its implementation is often prevented by
obstacles. Ms. de La Hougue also stressed that this right is an
essential component of the ethical rules which require medical
professionals to practice their profession "with conscience."
Professor Jean-Pierre Schouppe, law professor in Rome, spoke
about the right of health institutions to refuse the practice of
acts lacking of therapeutic purpose, such as abortion or
euthanasia. Professor Schouppe, first admitted that
"institutional conscientious objection" is inadequate because
institutions do not have personal conscience. However,
institutions enjoy full protection under the collective
dimension of freedom of religion and freedom of association.
Professor Schouppe relied heavily on the European Court
Panelists highlighted the inconsistency of countries that
recognize the right of physicians, midwives and nurses to
object, but don't extend the same right to pharmacists.
Physicians and pharmacists provide different means of abortion,
but in both cases they are directly involved Panelists also
emphasized that an employee cannot be required to renounce his
or her freedom of conscience and religion when he or she accepts
a job. Persons who are committed to respect for human life from
its beginning should not be denied a medical profession, such as
midwife or pharmacist.
The ECLJ is committed to a fair treatment and defense of the
right to conscientious objection. For that reason, the ECLJ
actively participated in the European parliamentary debates and
was involved in several cases on the matter with the European
Court of Human Rights. In May 2015, the ECLJ sent to the same
Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief a complaint against
the systematic violation of the freedom of conscience of medical
staff in Sweden.
In March 2014, the ECLJ had already made an oral statement
(video) at the Human Rights Council, denouncing a tendency in
Europe to limit the freedom of conscience in moral matters.
he Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within
the UN system made up of 47 States that are responsible for
strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights in
the world. The ECLJ has the right to intervene before the
Council under its special consultative status with the United
Nations / ECOSOC.