Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience

Conscience and ConvictionBook Review
Kimberley Brownlee,
Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience

Oxford University Press, 2012, 260pp., $65.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780199592944

Alon Harel, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In her thorough, careful and insightful discussion, Kimberley Brownlee explores the nature of conscience and conscientious convictions and draws important conclusions concerning the justifiable protection of acts of civil disobedience. The first part of her book discusses morality while the second part discusses law. In addition to its rigorous analysis, the book contains lively discussions of real-life examples and hypotheticals designed to illustrate and address all possible objections and establish the centrality of the protection of conscientious convictions and conscience in a liberal society.  . . . Read more. . .

Spanish physicians urged to disobey law on treating immigrants

According to a law that went into effect on 1 September, Spanish physicians may not provide health care for undocumented migrants except in cases of emergency, pregnancy, or delivery. The Spanish Society of Family and Community Medicine (SEMFyC), supported by the Spanish Medical Colleges, holds that the law is contrary to medical ethics and is advising physicians to become “conscientious objectors” to the law.  [Hastings Center Bioethics Forum]

Prominent Masschusetts physicians advocate civil disobedience

A former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a professor at Harvard Medical school are urging that American physicians practice civil disobedience by refusing to obey laws that block access to abortion and contraception.  “The unspoken assumption by state legislators seems to be that doctors will,” write Marcia Angell and Michael Greene,”. . . acquiesce with these new laws, that they are simply neutral agents who will comply with whatever the state orders.”  They argue that physicians “have ethical commitments to patients that they cannot and should not be required by state law to set aside.” [USA Today]

UNESCO official suggests mandatory registration of physicians who object to abortion

The UNESCO Chair in Bioethics at the University of Barcelona held a seminar on  “Abortion and conscientious objection” in early February.  The Chair’s director, Maria Casado, told the press that Spain should establish a national registry of physicians who object to abortion as a method of ensuring access to the procedure.  While she claimed to support a right to conscientious objection, she said that “When [it] is transformed into a collective stance for ideological reasons, it turns into civil disobedience.”  [ELN]


Ethical misconduct by abuse of conscientious objection laws

Med Law. 2006 Sep;25(3):513-22. PubMed PMID: 17078524

Bernard M. Dickens


This paper addresses laws and practices urged by conservative religious organizations that invoke conscientious objection in order to deny patients access to lawful procedures. Many are reproductive health services, such as contraception, sterilization and abortion, on which women’s health depends. Religious institutions that historically served a mission to provide healthcare are now perverting this commitment in order to deny care. Physicians who followed their calling honourably in a spirit of self-sacrifice are being urged to sacrifice patients’ interests to promote their own, compromising their professional ethics by conflict of interest. The shield tolerant societies allowed to protect religious conscience is abused by religiously-influenced agencies that beat it into a sword to compel patients, particularly women, to comply with religious values they do not share. This is unethical unless accompanied by objectors’ duty of referral to non-objecting practitioners, and  governmental responsibility to ensure supply of and patients’ access to such practitioners. [Full Text]