Why the right to conscientious objection must be restored
Presentation to the Life Dinner
David van Gend*
I feel a little out of place coming from Queensland to speak about the wretched situation in Victoria: coming from a State where it is always sunny, where the people are always nice, and where we don’t have oppressive laws that try to compel the conscience of free citizens.
But we are all in this together: an assault on fundamental freedoms in one State will become a precedent for similar abuses in other States.
It was a Melbourne man, Julian Savulescu, now an ethics professor at Oxford, who declared that doctors who will not provide abortion should be “punished through removal of license to practice”. He wrote in the British Medical Journal in 2006:
A doctors’ conscience has little place in the delivery of modern medical care. What should be provided to patients is defined by the law… If people are not prepared to offer legally permitted, efficient, and beneficial care to a patient because it conflicts with their values, they should not be doctors.1
Crucial to his argument is that, “when society has already decided that a service is legal”, it is not for doctors to “compromise the delivery of services”. When Savulescu’s article was discussed in 2006 in the medical newspaper Australian Doctor, I was given as an example of the sort of doctor who, in his view, “should either get out of the specialty or the profession altogether.”2 I gave a different angle to Australian Doctor: that abortion as commonly practiced is not a medical service; it is a “medical abuse” which doctors are bound by their Hippocratic principles and humane conscience not to commit.
And no law, no professional board, has the authority to compel any doctor to violate the principles of their vocation or mutilate their own conscience by collaborating in intentional killing.
Yet in Victoria, under section 8 of the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008,3 that compulsion by the authorities is exactly what doctors and nurses face.
Not long ago society was a little more civil and did not contemplate using the force of law to compel the conscience of fellow citizens. . . [Full text]