Seeking to square the circle: A sustainable conscientious objection in reproductive healthcare

Emmanuelle Bribosia, Isabelle Rorive

The Conscience Wars

While the right to abortion is not spelled out as such in the international or regional human rights treaties, recent developments strongly support the view that a right to safe and legal abortion is a woman’s human right. A sustainable model of conscientious objection in reproductive healthcare must take into account the human rights developments concerning induced abortion. For the past hundred years, conscientious objection has been used almost exclusively in the context of refusal to perform compulsory military service. There are major difficulties in trying to transpose the debate surrounding conscientious objection to the realm of reproductive health. The wider context of conscience claims raised after the legalisation of same-sex unions is even more disturbing. It shows the detrimental effect hat accommodation policies could have on the full operation of non-discrimination law. Recent supranational and national cases show that the recognition of conscientious objection in reproductive healthcare is hardly sustainable on the ground. A snowball effect seems inevitable. And even well-defined legal safeguards are failing. This leads to wide discriminatory treatment based on gender, territorial status, low social condition and ethnicity. This also leads to the failure to recognise the dignitary harm to women and the perpetuation of social prejudice and structural inequality which result from this approach. In other words, designing, implementing and monitoring a strictly regulated conscience clause in reproductive healthcare resembles an effort to square the circle. Something always falls by the wayside, and the ‘something’ is no less than women’s human rights.

Bribosia E, Rorive I. Seeking to square the circle: A sustainable conscientious objection in reproductive healthcare. In Chapter 15, Mancini S, Rosenfeld M, editors. The Conscience Wars: Rethinking the Balance between Religion, Identity, and Equality, Cambridge: University Press, 2018 (392-413).

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