An “expert group” of abortion activists has launched a strong attack on the concept and practice of conscientious objection (CO) in healthcare. “The practice of refusing to provide legal and essential health care due to a doctor’s personal or religious beliefs is a violation of medical ethics and of patients’ right to health care,” says the International Women’s Health Coalition in conjunction with Mujer y Salud en Uruguay.
A 46-page report, Unconscionable: When Providers Deny Abortion Care, argues that “the practice of refusing to provide legal and essential health care due to a doctor’s personal or religious beliefs is a violation of medical ethics and of patients’ right to health care.” The conclusions of the report are based on a meeting held in Montevideo, Uruguay, last year which brought together 45 participants from 22 countries, including the leading theorist of the attack on CO, Udo Schuklenk, of Queen’s University, in Canada.
To counter-attack against the growth of CO, the report recommends four avenues:
Reframe and rename. Reframe the debate to clarify and emphasize that “conscientious objection” is a misnomer that subverts the ethics, obligations, and standards of the health care profession.
Reclaim the concept of conscience. Do not cede the term “conscience” to those who prioritize individual beliefs over professional conduct and the right to access or provide health care. Shine a light on the harmful health consequences of conscience claims in the context of abortion care. Emphasize the “conscientious commitment” and professional conduct of health care providers who prioritize patients’ rights.
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Quantify the costs incurred by health systems due to claims of “conscientious objection” to abortion. Managing conscience claims can be costly and can create inefficiencies in the allocation of scarce health care resources. Quantifying the costs would fill a gap in our understanding of the consequences of refusal to provide abortion care due to conscience claims.
Renaming is an important part of the activists’ campaign. Instead of “conscientious objection,” they suggest that it be called “refusal to provide services,” “denial of services,” or even “dishonourable disobedience.”