The scope and limits of conscientious objection

Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2000 Oct;71(1):71-7. Review. PubMed PMID: 11044548.

Bernard M. Dickens, Rebecca J. Cook

Abstract:

Principles of religious freedom protect physicians, nurses and others who refuse participation in medical procedures to which they hold conscientious objections.
However, they cannot decline participation in procedures to save life or continuing health. Physicians who refuse to perform procedures on religious grounds must refer their patients to non-objecting practitioners. When physicians refuse to accept applicants as patients for procedures to which they object, governmental healthcare
administrators must ensure that non-objecting providers are reasonably accessible. Nurses’ conscientious objections to participate directly in procedures they find religiously offensive should be accommodated, but nurses cannot object to giving patients indirect aid. Medical and nursing students cannot object to be educated about procedures in which they would not participate, but may object to having to perform
them under supervision. Hospitals cannot usually claim an institutional conscientious objection, nor discriminate against potential staff applicants who would not object to participation in particular procedures. [Full Text]

Letter to the editor, Pharmacy Practice

Rosalyn Wosnick invites her readers to equate conscientious objection among pharmacists to the bigotry of a ‘deep south’ restauranteur, who argued that he had a right to deny service to blacks. (Editorial, Pharmacy Practice, July 2000) The analogy is misplaced, misrepresents the position of conscientious objectors, and is likely to engender prejudicial attitudes among their colleagues.

It would have been more accurate to compare pharmacists who have moral objections to dispensing a drug with a coffee shop owner who refuses to sell Brand X coffee to anyone, because it has been produced by child labour. The object, in both cases, is to avoid complicity in what the parties judge to be evil, regardless of the legalities involved.

However, Ms. Wosnick suggests that if a product is legal, and she wants it, other people should be made to give it to her, even if doing so would be contrary to their moral convictions. The product she is concerned about is Preven. Let’s consider a different product.

Ammunition, like Preven, is a legal product. Moreover, one has a legal right to defend one’s own home, even to the point of using deadly force, if need be. Suppose that a householder wants ammunition for defence against burglars, but a gun store clerk with moral objections to this type of crime prevention refuses to sell him ammunition. Applying Ms. Wosnick’s reasoning, the customer complains that the clerk is denying him his “right” to obtain a legal product. He demands that the clerk sell him the ammunition, or refer him to a more willing colleague, threatening to have him fired if he does not do so.

To say shotgun slugs are “legal”, however, means only that the customer is free to obtain and use them for legal purposes. It implies nothing about how gun store clerks should exercise their own freedom, even if licensed gun stores have a monopoly on the sale of ammunition as part of the state gun control system. Freedom to buy shotgun slugs – or drugs – does not mean that one is legally obliged to sell them, or to help others buy them.

If Ms. Wosnick asserts, instead, that there is a moral obligation to dispense a drug, and that this moral obligation is absolutely binding, she must identify the source of this morality. Moreover, since she would not dare to suppress the moral or ethical beliefs of others unless she was convinced that they were inferior to her own, she must explain why her moral views are superior to those that she seeks to suppress. Finally, in view of human rights jurisprudence that generally requires accommodation of belief rather than its suppression, she must explain why accommodation of those who disagree with her is impossible or undesirable.

Sean Murphy, Administrator
Protection of Conscience Project

Senator Perrault’s Bill Stalled

Senator Ray Perrault and Senator Anne Cools spoke to Senator Perrault’s protection of conscience Bill S-11 at second reading in the Canadian Senate. The chair of the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee would not support its introduction into the committee for hearing. Further efforts to introduce the bill into committee failed The Senate has now adjourned for the summer, and there can be no further progess until the fall.