Conscientious Objection and Clinical Judgement: The Right to Refuse to Harm

Toni C. Saad

Conscientious Objection and Clinical Judgement: The Right to Refuse to Harm


This paper argues that healthcare aims at the good of health, that this pursuit of the good necessitates conscience, and that conscience is required in every practical judgement, including clinical judgment. Conscientious objection in healthcare is usually restricted to a handful of controversial ends (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, contraception), yet the necessity of conscience in all clinical judgements implies the possibility of conscientious objection to means. The distinction between conscientious objection to means and ends is explored and its implications considered. Based on this, it is suggested that conscientious objection, whether to means or ends, occurs when a proposed course of action comes into irreconcilable conflict with the moral principle ‘do no harm’. It is, therefore, concluded that conscientious objection in healthcare can be conceived as a requirement of the moral imperative to do no harm, the right to refuse to harm in regard to health.

Saad TC. Conscientious Objection and Clinical Judgement: The Right to Refuse to Harm. New Bioethics. 2019 Sep; 25(3): 248-261 DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1649863

Is conscientious objection incompatible with healthcare professionalism?

Mary Neal, Sara Fovargue

The New Bioethics


Is conscientious objection (CO) necessarily incompatible with the role and duties of a healthcare professional? An influential minority of writers on the subject think that it is. Here, we outline the positive case for accommodating CO and examine one particular type of incompatibility claim, namely that CO is fundamentally incompatible with proper healthcare professionalism because the attitude of the conscientious objector exists in opposition to the disposition (attitudes and underlying character) that we should expect from a ‘good’ healthcare professional. We ask first whether this claim is true in principle: what is the disposition of a ‘good’ healthcare professional, and how does CO align with or contradict it? Then, we consider practical compatibility, acknowledging the need to identify appropriate limits on the exercise of CO and considering what those limits might be. We conclude that CO is not fundamentally incompatible – either in principle or in practice – with good healthcare professionalism.

Neal M, Fovargue S.  Is conscientious objection incompatible with healthcare professionalism? New Bioethics 2019 Sep; 25(3): 221-235, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1651935.

How special is medical conscience?

David S. Oderberg

How special is medical conscience?


The vigorous legal and ethical debates over conscientious objection have taken place largely within the domain of health care. Is this because conscience in medicine is of a special kind, or are there other reasons why it tends to dominate these debates? Beginning with an analysis of the analogy between medical conscience and conscientious objection in wartime, I go on to examine various possible grounds for distinguishing between medicine and other professional contexts (taking law and accountancy as examples). The conclusion is that no principled difference exists between the military and medical cases, nor between the health professions and other professions. Nevertheless, there are practical reasons why medical conscience has distinctive importance, mainly concerning the rapid advance of medical technology. Medical conscience will, for these reasons, continue to drive the debate over conscientious objection, even though legal protection should in principle extend to all professions.

Oderberg DS.  How Special is medical conscience? New Bioethics. 2019 Sep; 25(3): 207-220, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1651078.

Guest editorial re: conscience in health care

Special edition of The New Bioethics

Mary Neal, Sara Fovargue & Stephen W. Smith

The New Bioethics

It is probably fair to say that academic interest in the role of conscience in healthcare (and specifically, in the phenomenon of conscientious objection (CO)) has never been more intense, as evidenced by the volume of articles (and indeed, special issues) devoted to the topic in recent years. The three of us have contributed to this burgeoning literature, writing separately and together.

This special issue of The New Bioethics marks the mid-point of a project devised and co-managed by us and funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Research Networks scheme: the Accommodating Conscience Research Network (ACoRN).  Our aim in developing this multidisciplinary network (including academics from arange of disciplines, practitioners, and representatives of professional bodies) is to carve out intellectual space within which to begin exploring conscience/CO inhealthcare from a broadly supportive perspective. Our sense, as participants in academic debates about conscience, is that although the literature contains many rich insights and fascinating discussions, some of the most interesting questions about conscience are being overshadowed by the loudest and most polarized disagreement over whether there is any legitimate role for CO in healthcare at all. This is despite the fact that it seems to us that most contributors adopt positions that are hospitableto the accommodation of CO, at least to some extent and in some circumstances. . . [Full text]

Neal M, Fovargue S, Smith SW. Guest editorial. The New Bioethics. 2019 Sep;25(3): 203-206, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1659485.

Questionable benefits and unavoidable personal beliefs: defending conscientious objection for abortion

Bruce Philip Blackshaw, Daniel Rodger

Journal of Medical Ethics


Conscientious objection in healthcare has come under heavy criticism on two grounds recently, particularly regarding abortion provision. First, critics claim conscientious objection involves a refusal to provide a legal and beneficial procedure requested by a patient, denying them access to healthcare. Second, they argue the exercise of conscientious objection is based on unverifiable personal beliefs. These characteristics, it is claimed, disqualify conscientious objection in healthcare. Here, we defend conscientious objection in the context of abortion provision. We show that abortion has a dubitable claim to be medically beneficial, is rarely clinically indicated, and that conscientious objections should be accepted in these circumstances. We also show that reliance on personal beliefs is difficult to avoid if any form of objection is to be permitted, even if it is based on criteria such as the principles and values of the profession or the scope of professional practice.

Blackshaw BP, Rodger D. Questionable benefits and unavoidable personal beliefs: defending conscientious objection for abortion. J Medical Ethics 2019 Aug 31. pii: medethics-2019-105566. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105566. [Epub ahead of print]

Débats entourant l’objection de conscience : le cas du don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir au Québec

Julie Allard, Marie-Chantal Fortin

Débats entourant l’objection de conscience : le cas du don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir au Québec


Depuis décembre 2015, l’aide médicale à mourir, une pratique au centre de nombreux débats éthiques, est légalisée dans la province du Québec, au Canada. Ce nouveau type de décès a créé un tout nouveau contexte pour le don d’organes, soit le don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir. Le prélèvement des organes s’effectue alors suivant le protocole habituel du don d’organes après décès cardiocirculatoire contrôlé (catégorie Maastricht III), un protocole qui suscitait déjà de nombreux questionnements médico-éthiques. En outre, l’amalgame des deux pratiques soulève de nouveaux enjeux éthiques qui peuvent se traduire par des objections de conscience chez les médecins directement impliqués dans l’aide médicale à mourir et/ou le don d’organes. Or, une telle objection de conscience peut-elle être acceptable ? Nous tenterons de répondre à cette question en trois temps : d’abord, par un bref historique de l’objection de conscience ; ensuite, par une revue des débats actuels sur ce sujet ; enfin, par l’examen, à l’aide de critères recensés dans la littérature, de cas où les médecins refuseraient de participer au don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir.


Medical assistance in dying, a much debated practice in ethical literature, is practiced since 2015 in the province of Québec, Canada. Its practice has opened the door to organ donation after medical assistance in dying. This type of donation is possible through donation after controlled cardiocirculatory death (Maastricht III category), a procedure that also raises many ethical questions. Combining these two practices raises new ethical issues and could therefore generate conscientious objections from physicians directly involved in medical assistance in dying and/or organ donation. Would conscientious objection be acceptable in this context? To answer this question, we present a brief history of conscientious objection, an overview of the actual debates on conscientious objection and we will examine the case of the physician who would object to participate in organ donation after medical assistance in dying using existing criteria.

Allard J, Forin M.-C. Débats entourant l’objection de conscience : le cas du don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir au Québec. Éthique & Santé; 2019 Sep; 16(3): 125-132

Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Perils of Empirical Ethical Research

Daniel P. Sulmasy

Journal of the American Medical Association

Al Rabadi et al1 compare statistics on physician-assisted suicide (PAS) available from public databases for the states of Washington and Oregon and find similar profiles and trends, which is unsurprising given the similarity of the laws and demographic characteristics of these states. Among the unanswered questions are what such a study can contribute to medical ethics (about PAS or any other ethical controversy) and what the limits are of such work.


First, it should be noted that the medical literature is, in general, favorably disposed toward the empirical and the new. Although this predilection is often advantageous for scientific progress, it introduces a problematic bias when applied to ethical questions. The appeal of the study by Al Rabadi et al1 is that it is empirical, and by comparing data from 2 states for the first time, it can be considered novel. Because there are new reports each year and the practice of PAS is legal in only a few states, descriptive reports about PAS are published frequently. This means, however, that articles defending the ethical status quo (ie, against PAS) tend to be shut out of the medical literature because they are not reporting anything new and, therefore, cannot have any data. The result is an impression of growing acceptance of PAS, but it really represents an artifact of a scientific bias. . . . [Full text]

Sulmasy DP. Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Perils of Empirical Ethical Research. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(8):e198628. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.8628

Might there be a medical conscience

Nir Ben-Moshe



I defend the feasibility of a medical conscience in the following sense: a medical professional can object to the prevailing medical norms because they are incorrect as medical norms. In other words, I provide an account of conscientious objection that makes use of the idea that the conscience can issue true normative claims, but the claims in question are claims about medical norms rather than about general moral norms. I further argue that in order for this line of reasoning to succeed, there needs to be an internal morality of medicine that determines what medical professionals ought to do qua medical professionals. I utilize a constructivist approach to the internal morality of medicine and argue that medical professionals can conscientiously object to providing treatment X, if providing treatment X is not in accordance with norms that would have been constructed, in light of the end of medicine, by the appropriate agents under the appropriate conditions.

Ben‐Moshe, N. Might there be a medical conscience? Bioethics. 2019; 33: 835– 841.

Responding to religious patients: why physicians have no business doing theology

Jake Greenblum, Ryan K. Hubbard

Journal of Medical Ethics

Abstract: A survey of the recent literature suggests that physicians should engage religious patients on religious grounds when the patient cites religious considerations for a medical decision. We offer two arguments that physicians ought to avoid engaging patients in this manner. The first is the Public Reason Argument. We explain why physicians are relevantly akin to public officials. This suggests that it is not the physician’s proper role to engage in religious deliberation. This is because the public character of a physician’s role binds him/her to public reason, which precludes the use of religious considerations. The second argument is the Fiduciary Argument. We show that the patient-physician relationship is a fiduciary relationship, which suggests that the patient has the clinical expectation that physicians limit themselves to medical considerations. Since engaging in religious deliberations lies outside this set of considerations, such engagement undermines trust and therefore damages the patient-physician relationship.

Greenblum J, Ryan K ubbard RK. Responding to religious patients: why physicians have no business doing theology. J Med Ethics 2019;45:705-710. Published Online First: 20 Jun 2019. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105452

Eugenics between Darwin’s Εra and the Holocaust

Dimitra Chousou, Daniela Theodoridou, George Boutlas, Anna Batistatou, Christos Yapijakis, Maria Syrrou

Eugenics between Darwin’s Εra and the Holocaust


Heredity and reproduction have always been matters of concern. Eugenics is a story that began well before the Holocaust, but the Holocaust completely changed the way eugenics was perceived at that time. What began with Galton (1883) as a scientific movement aimed at the improvement of the human race based on the theories and principles of heredity and statistics became by the beginning of the 20th century an international movement that sought to engineer human supremacy. Eugenic ideas, however, trace back to ancient Greek aristocratic ideas exemplified in Plato’s Republic, which played an important role in shaping modern eugenic social practices and government policies. Both positive (encouragement of the propagation of the fit, namely without hereditary afflictions, i.e. socially acceptable) and negative (institutionalization, sterilization, euthanasia) eugenics focused on the encouragement of healthy and discouragement of unhealthy reproduction.
All these practices were often based on existing prejudices about race and disability. In this article, we will focus on the rise of eugenics, starting with the publication of Origin of Species to the Holocaust. This examination will be multidisciplinary, utilizing genetics, legal history and bioethical aspects. Through this examination, we will discuss how provisional understandings of genetics influenced eugenics-based legislation. We will also discuss the
rise of biopolitics, the change of medical ethos and stance towards negative eugenics policies, and the possible power of bioethical principles to prevent such phenomena.

Chousou D, Theodoridou D, Boutlas G, Batistatou A, Yapijakis C, Syrrou M. Eugenics between Darwin’s Εra and the Holocaust. Conatus J Philosophy; 2019 4(2); 171-204. DOI: