(Jan 2017) The Legal Ethical Backbone of Conscientious Refusal
Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Volume 26, Issue 1, January 2017 , pp. 59-68
Christian Munthe and Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen
This article analyzes the idea of a legal right to conscientious refusal for healthcare professionals from a basic legal ethical standpoint, using refusal to perform tasks related to legal abortion (in cases of voluntary employment) as a case in point. The idea of a legal right to conscientious refusal is distinguished from ideas regarding moral rights or reasons related to conscientious refusal, and none of the latter are found to support the notion of a legal right. Reasons for allowing some sort of room for conscientious refusal for healthcare professionals based on the importance of cultural identity and the fostering of a critical atmosphere might provide some support, if no countervailing factors apply. One such factor is that a legal right to healthcare professionals’ conscientious refusal must comply with basic legal ethical tenets regarding the rule of law and equal treatment, and this requirement is found to create serious problems for those wishing to defend the idea under consideration. We conclude that the notion of a legal right to conscientious refusal for any profession is either fundamentally incompatible with elementary legal ethical requirements, or implausible because it undermines the functioning of a related professional sector (healthcare) or even of society as a whole.