Declaration in Support of Conscientious Objection in Health Care

Introduction

The Declaration and associated texts you find here are my attempt, as a concerned academic, to provide a platform for the public support of freedom of conscience in health care.

Please read all of the material here. If you agree with the Declaration overall – even if you disagree with or are neutral on various details – I encourage you to add your electronic signature as a demonstration of support.

Signatures from health care professionals and academics in related fields are especially welcome, but you are encouraged to sign simply if you share my concerns and agree with the general way I have expressed them. You do not need an institutional affiliation, professional title, or any particular background. The more signatures this Declaration obtains, the more likely it is to come to the attention of policy makers and people who can amplify the message.

The texts ancillary to the Declaration are not part of its contents; they simply explain how I see and interpret the issues raised in the Declaration, and how I would like to see policy develop. By signing the Declaration, you do not indicate support for anything I say in the ancillary texts.

You will be asked only for your name, professional title (if you have one), institutional affiliation (if you have one), email address, and the country in which you reside. I may use your email occasionally to send you information about the Declaration, such as media coverage, but I will not use your email address for any other purpose. You will not be asked be involved in any other activity. The information you provide will be used solely to represent support for freedom of conscience in health care to professionals in the field (both clinical and academic), policy makers, and other interested parties who might be able to help with the promotion of this issue.

Acknowledgement and Disclaimer
I am grateful to the University of Reading for its support in hosting this material. The views and proposals presented here, however, represent my opinions alone. They do not, in any way, necessarily represent the views of the University of Reading or any of its officers, employees, or students.
David S. Oderberg

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You’re a surgeon. A patient wants to look like a lizard. What do you do?

As medical treatments advance, the need to accommodate conscientious objection in healthcare is more pressing

The Guardian
Reproduced with permission

David S. Oderberg*

Imagine that you are a cosmetic surgeon and a patient asks you to make them look like a lizard. Would you have ethical qualms? Or perhaps you are a neurosurgeon approached by someone wanting a brain implant – not to cure a disability but to make them smarter via cognitive enhancement. Would this go against your code of professional ethics? With the rapid advance of medical technology, problems of conscience threaten to become commonplace. Perhaps explicit legal protection for conscientious objection in healthcare is the solution.

There is limited statutory protection for those performing abortion, and there is some shelter for IVF practitioners. Passive euthanasia (withdrawal of life support with intent to hasten death) is also part of the debate over doctors’ conscience rights. That’s about it as far as UK law is concerned – though freedom of conscience is enshrined in numerous conventions and treaties to which we are party. Abortion, artificial reproductive technologies (involving embryo research and storage) and passive euthanasia are the flashpoints of current and historic controversy in medical ethics. The debate over freedom of conscience in healthcare goes to the heart of what it means to be a medical practitioner.

Curing, healing, not harming: these are the guiding principles of the medical and nursing professions. But what if there is reasonable and persistent disagreement over whether a treatment is in the patient’s best interests? What if a practitioner believes that treating their patient in a particular way is not good for them? What if carrying out the treatment would be a violation of the healthcare worker’s ethical and/or religious beliefs? Should they be coerced into acting contrary to their conscience?

Such coercion, whether it involve threats of dismissal, denial of job opportunities or of promotion, or shaming for not being a team player, is a real issue. Yet in what is supposed to be a liberal, pluralistic and tolerant society, compelling people to violate their deeply held ethical beliefs – making them do what they think is wrong – should strike one as objectionable.

Freedom of conscience is not only about performing an act but about assisting with it. There are some people who ask doctors to amputate healthy limbs. If you were a surgeon, my guess is that you would refuse. But what about being asked to help out? Would you hand over the instruments to a willing surgeon? Or supervise a trainee surgeon to make sure they did the amputation correctly? If conscientious objection is to have any substance in law, it must also cover these acts of assistance.

This country has a long and honourable tradition of accommodating conscientious objectors in wartime – those who decline to fight or to assist or facilitate the fighting by, say, making munitions. They can be assigned to other duties that may support the war effort yet are so remote a form of cooperation as not to trouble their consciences. In any war, the objectors are a tiny fraction of the combat-eligible population. Yet when it comes to one’s rights, do numbers matter? Has their existence ever prevented a war from being carried out to the utmost? I fail to see, then, why we are tolerant enough to make adjustments for conscientious objectors in the midst of a national emergency, yet in peacetime would be reluctant to afford similar adjustments to members of one of the most esteemed professions.

Do we think medical practitioners should be no more than state functionaries, dispensing whatever is legal no matter how much it is in conflict with personal conscience and professional integrity – lest they be hounded out of the profession? Some academics think expulsion is not good enough. Or should healthcare workers be valets, providing whatever service their patients demand? Perhaps when practitioners find themselves faced with demands for the sorts of treatment I’ve mentioned – or perhaps gene editing treatments or compulsory sterilisation, society will act. Or maybe by then it will be too little, too late.

David S Oderberg is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, and author of Declaration in support of conscientious protection in medicine

 

 

The “Medical Conscience” Civil Rights Movement

First Things

Wesley J. Smith*

Until recently, healthcare was not culturally controversial. Medicine was seen as primarily concerned with extending lives, curing diseases, healing injuries, palliating symptoms, birthing babies, and promoting wellness – and hence, as a sphere in which people of all political and social beliefs were generally able to get along.

That consensus has been shattered. Doctors today may be asked to provide legal but morally contentious medical interventions such as sex selection abortion, assisted suicide, preimplantation genetic diagnosis of IVF embryos, even medications that inhibit the onset of puberty for minors diagnosed with gender dysphoria. As a consequence, medical practice has become embroiled in political and cultural conflict. . .
Full Text

Medics should not be forced to do procedures they object to on ethical grounds

The Conversation
Reproduced with permission

David S. Oderberg*

For most people, the term “conscientious objection” evokes images of Quakers and pacifists registering to avoid military service. Many countries have a long and honourable tradition of accommodating such conscientious objectors. It might not be about bombs and bullets, but healthcare professionals often find themselves fighting a conscience battle of their own.

In the UK, Canada, Sweden and other countries, conscientious objectors in healthcare have found themselves discriminated against in various ways – whether through dismissal, lack of promotion, or more subtle forms of coercion. Most cases involve doctors, nurses or midwives refusing to perform abortion or euthanasia (or to assist with either). Yet these happen, through historical accident, to be the flashpoint of current controversy. . . [Full text]

Professor David Oderberg joins Protection of Conscience Project Advisory Board

News Release   

For immediate release

Protection of Conscience Project

The Protection of Conscience Project welcomes David S. Oderberg, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading, UK to the Project Advisory Board. Professor Oderberg joined the university after completing his doctorate at Oxford in the early 1990s. He is the author of many articles in metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and other areas. He is also the author of several books including Moral Theory and Applied Ethics (Blackwell, 2000) as well as co-editor of collections in ethics such as Human Values: New Essays on Ethics and Natural Law (Palgrave, 2004) and Human Lives: New Essays on Non-Consequentialist Bioethics (Palgrave, 1997).

Prof. Oderberg has been working on freedom of conscience in health care over the last few years, with a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics on co-operation, and a forthcoming policy monograph to be published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is Editor of Ratio, an international journal of analytic philosophy, and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. In 2013 he delivered the Hourani Lectures in Ethics at SUNY Buffalo, and has a book forthcoming based on those lectures, to be called The Metaphysics of Good and Evil. [Faculty Profile] [Website]

Contact:
Sean Murphy, Administrator
Protection of Conscience Project
protection@consciencelaws.org


The Protection of Conscience Project is a non-profit, non-denominational initiative that advocates for freedom of conscience in health care. The Project does not take a position on the morality or acceptability of morally contested procedures. Since 1999, the Project has been supporting health care workers who want to provide the best care  for their patients without violating their own personal and professional integrity. 

 

 

Further clarity on cooperation and morality

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