The Corner

Health Care

Declaration to Support ‘Medical Conscience’

We live in morally polyglot times, and it is tearing us apart. These moral divisions are particularly acute in health care. Many want to harness the skills of doctors, nurses,  pharmacists, and others not just to heal and prevent actual diseases, but to end human life, better effectuate life goals, and modify bodies to accord with mental states.

As a consequence, powerful societal voices insist that doctors (and other medical professionals) are professionally obligated to perform virtually every legal health-care procedure or other service in their fields requested by a patient — or find a doctor who will — even when the professional objects as a matter of conscience because the request would constitute the taking of human life, as in abortion and assisted suicide/euthanasia.

For example, an Ontario, Canada, judge has ruled that all MDs must euthanize legally qualified patients who ask to die, or refer to another doctor they know will do the deed. If they don’t like it — even if their faith tells them that complying would be a grievous sin — they can get out of medicine. I call this oppression, “medical martyrdom.”

Dissenters are pushing back, insisting that doctors and other professionals should be able to opt out of participating or being otherwise complicit in services that violate their religious or moral consciences — with the exception of when doing so would cost human life.

Now, Professor David Oderberg of the University of Reading in the U.K. — a friend — has issued a “Declaration in Support of Conscientious Objection in Healthcare,” that I hope readers will consider supporting. Here are the core elements:

4. Furthermore, in a liberal, democratic society the state may not play favourites by choosing one system of morality to trump all others no matter what objections of conscience are made against it. Conscientious objectors must not be silenced or marginalised merely because of their unwillingness to participate in activities to which they object.

5. In particular, the liberal, democratic state may not dictate that a secular, i.e. non-religious, system of morality trumps the rights of religious believers, or that one particular moral system trumps the rights of those with sincere, deeply held conscientious objections to some of its principles or requirements.

6. Freedom of conscience and religion in a liberal society does not entail that ‘anything goes’. A health care worker should not be able to find shelter under freedom of conscience and religion merely by claiming it. For the protection to apply, a person must have a deeply held, sincere adherence to a tenet or doctrine of their code of ethics or religion that forbids — expressly or by necessary implication — the kind of act to which they object.

7. Moreover, the relevant religious or ethical code must be one that has current or historic popular acceptance across some significant portion of the society in which the conscientious objector resides, or in some other society where the code is readily identifiable. . . .

8. The strong presumption in favour of conscientious objection would be rebutted if it could be shown that the act or practice in question were such that no reasonable person could object to its performance in the particular health care circumstances at hand. . . .

16. We will continue to see the list of controversial practices and activities increase at speed due to advances in biotechnology. If now is not the time to come out in strong support of freedom of conscience and religion in health care, we do not know when is.

This is an important document in this debate that hits the right balance between contesting moralities and the necessary comity required to maintain societal cohesion.

To review the whole Declaration, learn why its supporters think it is necessary, and/or add your support, hit this link.

Anyone interested in my ideas on how to frame medical conscience legal protections, hit this link.

Wesley J. Smith — Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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