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Protection of Conscience Project

Service, not Servitude
Repression of Conscience

Oxford Division Motion for British Medical Association

From the Annual Representatives Meeting Agenda (July, 2008)
Sean Murphy*
A motion (below) considered at the annual general meeting of the British Medical Association purported to support conscientious objection that is recognized in British statutes concerning abortion and artificial reproduction, but only on condition that physicians who object to abortion for reasons of conscience facilitate the procedure by referring patients to more willing colleagues. The motion was brought forward by the Oxford Division, of which abortion supporter Dr Evan Harris was a member. He was a Liberal Democratic Member of Parliament who favoured abortion and had spoken against freedom of conscience for health care workers.

Representatives from the Catholic Medical Association and the Islamic Medical Association in Britain expressed strong opposition to the motion. In the end, by an extraordinarily narrow margin (50.6 %) delegates voted against the motion. Much of the opposition to the motion centred on its requirement that objecting physicians be required to disclose their position on abortion in pamphlets and other notices. A number of opponents were concerned that this would indirectly lead to the identification of physicians who do provide abortions, while others believed that there were better ways to advise patients of their views.

Dr Evan Harris, a Liberal Democratic MP as well as a BMA member, clearly indicated his desire to restrict freedom of conscience for health care workers. He was prepared to accept the existing legal recognition of freedom of conscience in the case of abortion and artificial reproduction, but argued "we should go no further" [Scotsman]. Just days before the meeting, the proposal was attacked by Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor and Baroness Cumberlege, a Catholic peer and former Junior Health Minister [Catholic Herald].

528 Motion by OXFORD DIVISION:

That this Meeting:

(i) supports the rights of doctors and other health care professionals to conscientiously object to carrying out, or referring directly for, certain non-emergency lawful procedures, where:

(a) such conscientious objection is recognised in statute, as in abortion and IVF;

(b) the doctor recognises that s/he is not in a position to give balanced advice to patients considering that procedure and does not claim to do so;

(c) the medical practice makes every effort to inform patients in advance, for example through practice leaflets, which doctors are able to provide such advice and make appropriate referrals;

(d) in the event of seeing a patient seeking advice on such a procedure, the doctor must refer them to another doctor for such advice;

(e) in the event of seeing a patient seeking such a procedure, the doctor must, in line with GMC guidance, tell them of their right to see another doctor and ensure that the patient has sufficient information to exercise their right; but if the patient cannot readily make their own arrangements to see another doctor, the doctor must ensure that arrangements are made, without delay, for another doctor to take over their care.

(ii) calls on the GMC to ensure its guidance on personal beliefs and medical practice reflects this view;

(iii) calls on parliament to retain the statutory right of doctors and other health care professionals to conscientiously object in abortion and IVF services within the above limits.

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United Kingdom Protection of Conscience Laws