By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

I am a strong believer in medical conscience rights — properly defined and narrowly construed. Apparently, a poll of medical students in the UK found strong support for their right as doctors to refuse to treat certain patients. I worry that is too broad an interpretation — at least for non elective care. From The Australian story:

A survey of more than 700 British medical students found nearly half felt they should be entitled to make conscientious objections to carrying out procedures, including abortions and treating drunk patients. Most of their objections were linked to non-religious reasons, but about one-fifth of students cited religion as the key factor. Out of the 10 different religious groups the students belonged to, Muslims were the most likely to believe they had a right to conscientiously object. While the findings were based on the attitudes of British students, the head of Australia’s peak medical body believes similar ones exist here and medical schools might need to step up their teachings on ethical issues.

Doctors and other medical professionals are not mere order takers. And given that in recent times certain medical procedures have come to be accepted that not too long ago were thought of as anathema, it isn’t unreasonable to allow a zone of conscience protection — whether religious or non religiously based.

But, I think we have to be very careful in this field to distinguish between objectionable procedures, and objectionable patients to prevent discrimination as masking as conscience, at least when it comes to non elective interventions or treatments. Here are a few of the points I think should govern conscience rights of medical professionals. From my First Things article, “Pulling the Plug on the Conscience Clause:”

  • Except in rare and compelling circumstances in which a patient’s life is at stake, no medical professional should be compelled to perform or participate in procedures or treatments that take human life.
  • The rights of conscience should apply most strongly in elective procedures, that is, medical treatments not required to extend the life of, or prevent serious harm to, the patient.
  • It should be the procedure that is objectionable, not the patient. In this way, for example, physicians could not refuse to treat a lung-cancer patient because the patient smoked or to maintain the life of a patient in a vegetative state because the physician believed that people with profound impairments do not have a life worth living.
  • No medical professional should ever be forced to participate in a medical procedure intended primarily to facilitate the patient’s lifestyle preferences or desires (in contrast to maintaining life or treating a disease or injury).

Those aren’t exclusive. If you are interested in my reasoning for supporting medical conscience and the full criteria I proposed in support thereof, hit the above link.