Accommodating conscience in medicine

by Roger Trigg
JME Online First, published on May 26, 2014 as 10.1136/medethics-2013-101892


The issue of conscientious objection to agreed public policy is a vexed one. The clearest example is that of conscientious objection to military service. A free and democratic society has to respect the consciences of those who believe that killing in battle is absolutely wrong. Many disagree with the moral stance being taken, but it has been seen as the mark of a mature and civilised society to respect the conscience of pacifists. The freedom to be able to live by what one thinks most important has been seen as a constituent element in the freedoms that others have fought to preserve.

Respect for the conscience of those medical professionals who feel unable to participate in abortion appears to be in the same category (as would be respect for those who refused to participate in assisted suicide or euthanasia). Issues about the value of human life are at stake. Matters are undoubtedly complicated in the case of abortion by arguments over the supposed ‘humanity’ or ‘personhood’ of a fetus. Even so, some sincerely regard abortion as murder. Mutual respect is easy between people who agree. The problem in a democratic society arises when there is significant disagreement, but it is …