Origin and meaning of ‘‘conscientious objection’’

Conscientious objection (CO) in the West originates in Christianity in the form of pacifism — the belief that taking human life under any circumstances is evil (Moskos and Whiteclay Chambers, 1993). Although all conscientious objectors take their position on the basis of conscience, they may have varying religious, philosophical, or political reasons for their beliefs.

The original expression of conscientious objection was the refusal to perform mandatory military service because of personal or religious moral objections to killing. However, in recent years, the concept has been used by some in the medical profession to refuse to provide services with which they personally disagree, such as euthanasia, abortion, contraception, sterilization, assisted reproduction, and other health services — even when these services are legal and within the scope of their qualifications and practice. In particular, the Catholic Church and the anti-choice movement have co-opted the term ‘‘conscientious objection’’ to include the refusal by medical personnel to provide or refer for abortion (and increasingly, contraception), on the grounds that abortion is murder and that actions to oppose it are imperative. As the late Pope John Paul II said (Pope John Paul II, 1995): “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.”

Reproductive health is the only field in medicine where societies worldwide accept freedom of conscience as an argument to limit a patient‘s right to a legal medical treatment. However, CO in medicine is still largely unregulated across Europe (as in the rest of the world) and abuses remain systemic (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2010).

Source: Fiala C, Arthur JH. ‘‘Dishonourable disobedience’’ — Why refusal to treat in reproductive healthcare is not conscientious objection. Woman – Psychosom Gynaecol Obstet (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.woman.2014.03.001

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