Poll: British Med Students Back Abortion Conscience Rights

International   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 19, 2011   |   11:59AM   |   London, England

A new poll of British medical students finds them strongly supporting the conscience rights of physicians and medical professionals who don’t want to be involved in doing or referring for abortions.

The new survey, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics finds students agreeing that doctors  should be allowed to object to any procedure that conflicts with their personal, moral, or religious beliefs. Nearly half of respondents believed in the right of doctors to conscientiously object and refuse to treat a patient who wanted an abortion.

The author contacted 1437 medical students at medical schools in Cardiff, London, and Leeds, and asked them to complete an anonymous questionnaire to canvass their views on conscientious objection to medical practices in 2008. The students were also asked about their religious beliefs, their gender, ethnic origin and the type of medical degree they were taking. In all, 733 responded, giving a response rate of 51%. One in three was male, and three out of four respondents were taking a five year degree.

In response to the question: ‘Do you think that doctors should be entitled to object to any procedure for which they have a moral, cultural or religious disagreement?’ 45% said yes; 14% were unsure; 40% said no. Three out of four Muslim students (76%) responded in the affirmative, as did over half of Jewish, Protestant and ‘Other’ students. The proportions of those with other faiths who said ‘yes’, ranged from 34% (Hindu) to 46% (Catholics).

When asked about 11 medical practices, which included abortion, students on the traditional five year course (21%) were more likely to raise objections than those on the four year course (3%). Across the entire group of medical students, one in five objections were on religious grounds; almost half were on non-religious grounds, and around one in three were a mixture of both. Muslim and Protestant students were the most likely to give religious reasons for their objection, followed by Catholic students. Jewish students were the least likely to object on these grounds. Medical students were least willing to treat patients requesting an abortion. Muslim students were the most likely to object

The survey also found almost a third of students surveyed would not perform an abortion on a disabled unborn child before 24 weeks, a quarter would not perform an abortion for failed contraception before 24 weeks, and a fifth would not perform an abortion on a minor who was the victim of rape.

The study’s author complained that the survey showed it may be more difficult for women to get abortions in the future because doctors don’t want to be forced to be involved.

“In light of increasing demand for abortions, these results may have implications for women’s access to abortion services in the future. The Department of Health has issued statistics showing that, although there are an increasing number of abortions taking place in the UK, fewer doctors are willing to perform them,” she said. “Once qualified as doctors, if all these respondents acted on their conscience and refused to perform certain procedures, it may become impossible for conscientious objectors to be accommodated in medicine.”

Anthony McCarthy, education manager of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), responded to the results.

“While it is encouraging that many medical students are standing up for their autonomy in relation to fundamental moral truths concerning life and fertility, it is troubling that Dr Sophie Strickland, the survey’s author, prominent ethicists and professional bodies view such autonomy as a problem,’ he told LifeNews.

“Conscientious objection – unlike abortion – is a fundamental human right protected by international law. The problem is not medical students asserting their rights to conscientious objection, in line with Hippocratic respect for human life, but the distortion of medicine by unethical practices such as abortion,” he added.

The study can be cited at Conscientious objection in medical students: a questionnaire survey, Strickland SLM J.Med Ethics 2011