Christian Medical and Dental Society
Abstract: I explore the increasingly important issue of cooperation in immoral actions, particularly in connection with healthcare. Conscientious objection, especially as pertains to religious freedom in healthcare, has become a pressing issue in the light of the US Supreme Court judgement in Hobby Lobby. Section ‘Moral evaluation using the basic principles of cooperation’ outlines a theory of cooperation inspired by Catholic moral theologians such as those cited by the court. The theory has independent plausibility and is at least worthy of serious consideration—in part because it is an instance of double-effect reasoning, which is also independently plausible despite its association with moral theology. Section ‘Case study: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby’ examines Hobby Lobby in detail. Even if the judgement was correct in that case the reasoning was not, as it involved applying a ‘mere sincerity’ test to the cooperation question. The mere sincerity test leads to absurd consequences, whereas a reasonableness test applied using the theory of cooperation defended here would avoid absurdity. Section ‘A question of remoteness: “accommodations” and opt-outs’ explores the post-Hobby Lobby problem further, examining opt-outs and accommodations: the Little Sisters of the Poor case shows how opt-outs are misunderstood on a mere sincerity test, which the court rightly rejected. Section ‘Application to the medical field: Doogan and Wood’ discusses the UK case of Doogan and Wood, concerning participation in abortion. Again, a judicially recognised ethic of cooperation, if it were part of the fabric of legal reasoning in such cases, would have enabled the conscientious objectors in this and similar situations to have their freedom of conscience and religion respected in a way that it currently is not.
Oderberg DS, Further clarity on cooperation and morality. J Med Ethics doi:10.1136/medethics-2016-103476
Abstract: Christian bioethics starts with different metaphysical, epistemological, and teleological assumptions. It starts with God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe who as the second person of the Godhead became incarnate as our Redeemer and Lord. Morality reflects God’s nature and is known through reason and intuition guided by revelation. The end of a Christian bioethics is to discover the way our God intends for us to live and to discover the type of person He intends for us to be in order to live a holy and sanctified life. Christian bioethicists will seek integration among their core beliefs and between their beliefs and actions, and they will bear witness to their beliefs in a world that is not yet redeemed. Each contribution in this issue represents an example of these types of Christian integration. Each bears witness to the fact that a Christian bioethics is different.
Parker C. Implications of Christian Truth Claims for Bioethics. Christ Bioeth (2016) 22 (3): 265-275 doi:10.1093/cb/cbw013
Abstract: Many proponents of euthanasia eschew appeals to religious premises as good reasons for thinking that human life has intrinsic worth. The reasons offered are that religious reasons do not meet some theory-neutral epistemic standard. My first argument is to show that pro-euthanasia arguments fail to meet those same standards. In order to avoid this incoherence, the rejection of religious reasons is a function of thinking that such reasons are simply false. Arguing against religious belief has typically fallen to the evidential argument from evil. My second argument is to show that the argument from evil must hold to a basic goods account of human life. Such an account is contrary to the view of human life held by most euthanasia proponents. So, euthanasia proponents who reject religious belief on the basis of an argument from evil must hold to a contradictory view of human worth. One cannot both be a euthanasia proponent and reject arguments against euthanasia (that are based in part on religious premises). I explore ways to resolve this tension, but none save pro-euthanasia arguments.
Napier S. Why Are Religious Reasons Dismissed? Euthanasia, Basic Goods, and Gratuitous Evil. Christ Bioeth (2016) 22 (3): 276-300 doi:10.1093/cb/cbw012
Background: The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has ruled that the federal government is required to remove the provisions of the Criminal Code of Canada that prohibit medical assistance in dying (MAID). The SCC has stipulated that individual physicians will not be required to provide MAID should they have a religious or conscientious objection. Therefore, the pending legislative response will have to balance the rights of the patients with the rights of physicians, other health care professionals, and objecting institutions.
Objective: The objective of this paper is to critically assess, within the Canadian context, the moral probity of individual or institutional objections to MAID that are for either religious or conscientious reasons.
Methods: Deontological ethics and the Doctrine of Double Effect.
Results: The religious or conscientious objector has conflicting duties, i.e., a duty to respect the “right to life” (section 7 of the Charter) and a duty to respect the tenets of his or her religious or conscientious beliefs (protected by section 2 of the Charter).
Conclusion: The discussion of religious or conscientious objections to MAID has not explicitly considered the competing duties of the conscientious objector. It has focussed on the fact that a conscientious objection exists and has ignored the normative question of whether the duty to respect one’s conscience or religion supersedes the duty to respect the patient’s right to life.
Christie T, Sloan J, Dahlgren D, Konging F. Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada: An Ethical Analysis of Conscientious and Religious Objections. BioéthiqueOnLine, 2016, 5/14
Canadian policy makers have recently proposed to require all doctors to provide an effective referral for physician-assisted death (PAD) upon the patient’s request. Forcing doctors to knowingly send their patient to another doctor willing to cause the patient’s death will seriously compromise the moral integrity of conscientiously objecting doctors and risks undermining the quality of patient care. To understand the position of conscientiously objecting doctors, consider the following questions.
1. Should doctors provide physician-assisted death merely because it is legal?
2. Must all doctors accept the assumptions underpinning the claim that physician-assisted death is good medical care?
3. If physician-assisted death remained illegal, would doctors be legally liable for making an effective referral?
4. Does the Charter right of Freedom of Conscience apply to doctors?
5. How does respect for conscientious objection affect patient care?
6. Will respect for conscientious objection obstruct access to physician-assisted death?
(For the author’s answers, see the full text)
Canadian Catholic Bioethics Centre
Recently I was asked to present “the Catholic position” on physician-assisted death as part of a panel discussion held at a downtown Toronto hospital. The purpose of the event was not to debate the issue but to educate participants about various points of view. I ran into some difficulty when I was discussing the Catholic Church’s interest in protecting the consciences of health care staff. One panelist immediately redirected our attention to the needs of the patient seeking physician-assisted death and the conversation left the health care professionals behind. In this short article, I would like to bring the focus back to the doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, therapists, in short, to the health care staff involved in patient care and who may have objections to performing or assisting in physician-assisted death.. . . Full Text
“Contemplating Suicide? We Can Help!” There was a time when such an advertisement pointed to a crisis line, where someone was standing by to counsel you and offer hope in a situation of intolerable pain.
We are in a very different time, now. In a few short months, assisted suicide, its grim reality hidden behind blandly deceptive terms like “medical assistance in dying,” will be declared an acceptable option in our country, enshrined in law. As the federal government prepares legislation to implement the Supreme Court’s decision, it is crucial to consider the effects of this fundamental change in our laws.
Death comes to us all – sometimes suddenly, and sometimes slowly. Although patients benefit from medication that controls pain, they are fully justified in refusing burdensome and disproportionate treatment that serves only to prolong the inevitable process of dying. But dying is simply not the same as being killed. We are grateful for physicians and nurses and others who offer medical assistance to patients who are dying, but it is never justified for them to kill a patient. . .[Full text]
In 2008, when the Council of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario was considering the final draft of an earlier policy, Physicians and the Human Rights Code, a member of the Council seems to have been troubled by the policy direction being given to the Colllege by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).
Speaking during the Council meeting, he drew his colleagues’ attention to a chilling New England Journal of Medicine article by Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: “Without conscience.”1 It was about the crucial role played by German physicians in supporting Nazi horrors. “How can we explain their betrayal?” Wiesel asked. “What gagged their conscience? What happened to their humanity?”2
Now, however, to the applause of the OHRC,3 the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has approved a policy to gag the consciences of physicians in the province,4 and Saskatchewan is next in line.5 We may soon begin to discover the answers to Wiesel’s questions.
Policies like those adopted in Ontario and proposed in Saskatchewan are incoherent because they purport to include a duty to do what one believes to be wrong in a code of ethics or ethical guidelines, the very purpose of which is to encourage physicians to act ethically and avoid wrongdoing.
Beyond this, when discussion about difficulties associated with the exercise of freedom of conscience in health care is repeatedly characterized as “the problem of conscientious objection,”6 it becomes clear that the underlying premise is that people and institutions ought to do what they believe to be wrong, and that refusal to do what one believes to be wrong requires special justification. This is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. Most people believe that we should not do what we believe to be wrong, and that refusing to do what we believe to be wrong is the norm. It is wrongdoing that needs special justification or excuse, not refusing to do wrong.
The inversion is troubling, since “a duty to do what is wrong” is being advanced by those who support the “war on terror.” They argue that there is, indeed, a duty to do what is wrong, and that this includes a duty to kill non-combatants and to torture terrorist suspects.7 The claim is sharply contested,8 but it does indicate how far a duty to do what is wrong might be pushed. In Quebec, in Ontario and in Saskatchewan it is now being pushed as far as requiring physicians to participate in killing patients, even if they believe it is wrong: even if they believe that it is homicide.9
This reminder is a warning that the community must be protected against the temptation to give credence to the dangerous idea that is now being advanced by medical regulators in Canada: that a learned or privileged class, a profession or state institutions can legitimately compel people to do what they believe to be wrong – even gravely wrong – and punish them if they refuse.
Attempts to suppress freedom of conscience and religion in the medical profession are often defended using a statement of the Supreme Court of Canada: “the freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them.”10
The statement is not wrong, but it is inadequate. It is simply not responsive to many of the questions about the exercise of freedom of conscience that arise in a society characterized by a plurality of moral and political viewpoints and conflicting demands. More refined distinctions are required. One of them is the distinction between perfective and preservative freedom of conscience, which reflects the two ways in which freedom of conscience is exercised: by pursuing apparent goods and avoiding apparent evils.11
It is generally agreed that the state may limit the exercise of perfective freedom of conscience if it is objectively harmful, or if the limitation serves the common good. Although there may be disagreement about how to apply these principles, and restrictions may go too far, no polity could long exist without restrictions of some sort on human acts, so some limitation of perfective freedom of conscience is not unexpected.
If the state can legitimately limit perfective freedom of conscience by preventing people from doing what they believe to be good, it does not follow that it is equally free to suppress preservative freedom of conscience by forcing them to do what they believe to be wrong. There is a significant difference between preventing someone from doing the good that he wishes to do and forcing him to do the evil that he abhors.
We have noted the danger inherent in the notion of a “duty to do what is wrong.” Here we add that, as a general rule, it is fundamentally unjust and offensive to suppress preservative freedom of conscience by forcing people to support, facilitate or participate in what they perceive to be wrongful acts; the more serious the wrongdoing, the graver the injustice and offence. It is a policy fundamentally opposed to civic friendship, which grounds and sustains political community and provides the strongest motive for justice. It is inconsistent with the best traditions and aspirations of liberal democracy, since it instills attitudes more suited to totalitarian regimes than to the demands of responsible freedom.
This does not mean that no limit can ever be placed on preservative freedom of conscience. It does mean, however, that even the strict approach taken to limiting other fundamental rights and freedoms is not sufficiently refined to be safely applied to limit freedom of conscience in its preservative form. Like the use of potentially deadly force, if the restriction of preservative freedom of conscience can be justified at all, it will only be as a last resort and only in the most exceptional circumstances.
None of these conditions have been met in Ontario or in Saskatchewan.
2. Wiesel E. “Without Conscience.” N Engl J Med 352;15 april14, 2005 (Accessed 2014-02-24)
3. Letter from the Office of the Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission, to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, dated 19 February, 2015, Re CPSO Draft Policy: Professional Obligations and Human Rights
4. College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, Policy #2-15: Professional Obligations and Human Rights (Updated March, 2015) (Accessed 2015-03-16)
5. College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, Policy: Conscientious Refusal.
6. For example, Cannold L. “The questionable ethics of unregulated conscientious refusal.” ABC Religion and Ethics, 25 March, 2011. (Accessed 2013-08-11)
7. Gardner J. “Complicity and Causality,” 1 Crim. Law & Phil. 127, 129 (2007). Cited in Haque, A.A. “Torture, Terror, and the Inversion of Moral Principle.” New Criminal Law Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 613-657, 2007; Workshop: Criminal Law, Terrorism, and the State of Emergency, May 2007. (Accessed 2014-02-19)
8. Haque, A.A. “Torture, Terror, and the Inversion of Moral Principle.” New Criminal Law Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 613-657, 2007; Workshop: Criminal Law, Terrorism, and the State of Emergency, May 2007. (Accessed 2014-02-19)
9. Quebec has already passed a law purporting to legalize euthanasia: Murphy S. “Redefining the Practice of Medicine- Euthanasia in Quebec, Part 9: Codes of Ethics and Killing.” Protection of Conscience Project, July, 2014. The Supreme Court of Canada has ordered legalization of physician assisted suicide and physician administered euthanasia. When the ruling takes effect in early 2016, the Ontario and Saskatchewan policies, as written, will have the effect of forcing physicians unwilling to kill patients or help them kill themselves to find a colleague willing to do so.
10. Trinity Western University v. College of Teachers,  1 S.C.R. 772, 2001 SCC 31 (Accessed 2014-07-29)
11. This section of the paper draws from an extended discussion of the subject in Murphy S, Geunis S.J. “Freedom of Conscience in Health Care: Distinctions and Limits.” J Bioeth Inq. 2013 Oct; 10(3): 347-54
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, the state regulator of the practice of medicine in the province, has approved a policy that requires all physicians who object to a procedure for reasons of conscience to facilitate the procedure by referring patients to a colleague who will provide it.1 A policy to the same effect has been approved in principle by the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Saskatchewan, though it is now under review.2
Remarkably, no evidence was provided to justify the policy in either province. There is no evidence that even a single person in either Ontario or Saskatchewan has ever been unable to access medical services because of conscientious objection by a physician. Materials provided by the working group to the College Council in Ontario were deficient, erroneous and seriously misleading,3 while the development of the policy in Saskatchewan was marked by what appears to be a pattern of concealment, selective disclosure, and false or misleading statements.4
Submissions made by the Protection of Conscience Project to the Colleges in Ontario and Saskatchewan during public consultations included a discussion of morality and medical practice which has been adapted for this presentation.
The practice of medicine is an inescapably moral enterprise precisely because physicians are always seeking to do some kind of good and avoid some kind of evil for their patients.5 However, the moral aspect of practice as it relates to the conduct and moral responsibility of a physician is usually implicit, not explicit. It is normally eclipsed by the needs of the patient and exigencies of practice. But it is never absent; every decision concerning treatment is a moral decision, whether or not the physician specifically adverts to that fact.
This point is frequently overlooked when a physician, for reasons of conscience, declines to participate in or provide a service or procedure that is routinely provided by his colleagues. They may be disturbed because they assume that, in making a moral decision about treatment, he has done something unusual, even improper. Seeing nothing wrong with the procedure, they see no moral judgement involved in providing it. In their view, the objector has brought morality into a situation where it doesn’t belong, and, worse, it is his morality.
In point of fact, the moral issue was there all along, but they didn’t notice it because they have been unreflectively doing what they were taught to do in medical school and residency, and what society expects them to do. Nonetheless, in deciding to provide the procedure they also implicitly concede its goodness; they would not provide it if they did not think it was a good thing to do. What unsettles them is really not that the objector has taken a moral position on the issue, but that he has made an explicit moral judgement that differs from their implicit one.
Hence, the demand that physicians must not be allowed to act upon beliefs is unacceptable because it is impossible; one cannot act morally without reference to beliefs, and cannot practise medicine without reference to beliefs. Relevant here is a comment by Professor Margaret Somerville. “In ethics,” she writes,”impossible goals are not neutral; they cause harm.”6
Once medicine is understood to be a moral enterprise, it becomes easier to understand why it is a mistake to think that moral or ethical views are unwelcome intruders upon the physician-patient relationship. Morality and ethics are actually intrinsic to it. Of course, some moral or ethical views may be erroneous, but that is a different matter that must be addressed by explaining why they are erroneous. It will not do to pretend, for example, that the claim that best medical practice in some circumstances means killing a patient does not involve at least implicit moral or ethical judgements.
Consistent with the practice of medicine understood as a moral enterprise, a physician first considers the well-being of the patient.7 Patient-centred medical practice is directed to ensuring good medical care, but good medical care is not provided by automatons. Medical schools do not manufacture made-to-order products that perform according to factory default settings, or finely machined cogs that keep health care delivery apparatus running smoothly. Medicine is a moral enterprise, morality is a human enterprise, and physicians, no less than patients, are moral agents.
All public behaviour – how one treats other people, how one treats animals, how one treats the environment – is determined by what one believes. Some of these beliefs are religious, some not, but all are beliefs. This applies no less to “secular” ethics than to religious ethics. That human dignity exists – or that it does not – or that human life is worthy of unconditional reverence – or merely conditional respect – and notions of beneficence, justice and equality are not the product of scientific enquiry, but rest upon faith: upon beliefs about human nature, the meaning and purpose of life, the existence of good and evil.
That everyone is a believer reflects the fact that the practice of morality is a human enterprise,8 but it is not a scientific enterprise. The classic ethical question, “How ought I to live?” is not a scientific question and cannot be answered by any of the disciplines of natural science, though natural science can provide raw material needed for adequate answers.
Answers to the question, “How ought I to live?” reflect two fundamental moral norms; do good, avoid evil. These basics have traditionally been undisputed; the disputes begin with identifying or defining good and evil and what constitutes “doing” and “avoiding.” Such explorations are the province of philosophy, ethics, theology and religion.
Internationally, religion continues to be the principal means by which concepts of good and evil and right and wrong conduct are sustained and transmitted. Nonetheless, since the practice of morality is a human enterprise, reflections about morality and the development and transmission of ideas about right and wrong also occurs within culture and society outside the framework of identifiable academic disciplines and religions.
In consequence, the secular public square is populated by people with any number of moral viewpoints, some religious, some not: some tied to particular philosophical or ethical systems, some not: but all of them believers. There is no reason to deny the freedom to act upon religious belief because it is religious: no reason, that is, apart from anti-religious bigotry.
Further, since morality is a human enterprise, moral judgement is an essential activity of every human person, moral judgement necessarily involves some kind of individual or personal conviction, and maintaining one’s personal moral integrity is the aspiration of anyone who wishes to live rightly. Thus, beliefs are “personal,” in the sense that one personally accepts them and is committed to them.
However, this does not mean that such “personal” beliefs are parochial, insignificant or erroneous. Christian, Jewish and Muslim beliefs, for example, are shared by hundreds of millions of people. They “personally” adhere to their beliefs, just as non-religious believers “personally” adhere to their non-religious beliefs. In neither case does the fact of this “personal” commitment provide grounds to set beliefs aside. Thus, it is important to recognize that pejorative or suspicious references to “personal” beliefs or “personal” values frequently reflect underlying and perhaps unexamined prejudice against them.
1. College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, Policy #2-15: Professional Obligations and Human Rights (Updated March, 2015) (Accessed 2015-03-16)
2. College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, Policy: Conscientious Refusal.
3. Protection of Conscience Project, Submission to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario Re: Professional Obligations and Human Rights, Appendix “B”: Unreliability of Jurisdictional Review by College Working Group
5. Maddock J.W. “Humanizing health care services. The practice of medicine as a moral enterprise.” J Natl Med Assoc. 1973 November; 65(6): 501–passim. PMCID: PMC2609038 (Accessed 2014-02-18)
6. Somerville M. “Why are they throwing brickbats at God?” MercatorNet, 1 June, 2007 (Accessed 2014-08-03)
7. Canadian Medical Association, Code of Ethics (2004): Fundamental Responsibilities No. 1. (Accessed 2014-02-15)