Conscientious objection and moral distress: a relational ethics case study of MAiD in Canada

Mary Kathleen Deutscher Heilman, Tracy J. Trothen

Conscientious objection and moral distress: a relational ethics case study of MAiD in Canada

Abstract: Conscientious objection has become a divisive topic in recent bioethics publications. Discussion has tended to frame the issue in terms of the rights of the healthcare professional versus the rights of the patient. However, a rights-based approach neglects the relational nature of conscience, and the impact that violating one’s conscience has on the care one provides. Using medical assistance in dying as a case study, we suggest that what has been lacking in the discussion of conscientious objection thus far is a recognition and prioritising of the relational nature of ethical decision-making in healthcare and the negative consequences of moral distress that occur when healthcare professionals find themselves in situations in which they feel they cannot provide what they consider to be excellent care. We propose that policies that respect the relational conscience could benefit our healthcare institutions by minimising the negative impact of moral distress, improving communication among team members and fostering a culture of ethical awareness. Constructive responses to moral distress including relational cultivation of moral resilience are urged.


Heilman MKD, Trothen TJ. Conscientious objection and moral distress: a relational ethics case study of MAiD in Canada. J Med Ethics. 2020;46(2):123-127. doi:10.1136/medethics-2019-105855

Woman suing two pharmacies after being denied emergency contraception

The US case brings to light concerns around conscientious objection at a time when a federal religious discrimination bill is being debated in Australia

Sheshtyn Paola

Woman suing two pharmacies after being denied emergency contraception

A woman has filed a lawsuit against a Thrifty White Pharmacy and a CVS Pharmacy in Minnesota in the US, alleging the two pharmacies illegally kept her from accessing emergency contraception.

Andrea Anderson, a 39-year-old mother of five, says she asked the pharmacist at her drugstore in Minnesota more than once why he couldn’t fill her prescription for emergency contraception, according to the Star Tribune.

“I then realised what was happening: he was refusing to fill my prescription for emergency contraception because he did not believe in it,” Ms Anderson said on Tuesday. . . [Full text]

Paola S. Woman suing two pharmacies after being denied emergency contraception. Australian Pharm J [Internet]. 2019 Dec 12.

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

Abstract

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

Selective Conscientious Objection in Healthcare

Christopher Cowley

Selective Conscientious Objection in Healthcare

Abstract

Most discussions of conscientious objection in healthcare assume that the objection is universal: a doctor objects to all abortions. I want to investigate selective objections, where a doctor objects to one abortion but not to another, depending on the circumstances. I consider not only objections to abortion, but also objections to the withdrawal of life-saving treatment at the request of a competent patient, which is almost always selective. I explore how the objector might articulate the selective objection, and what impact it might have on the patient, within the conceptual space of relevant statutes and professional guidelines.


Cowley C.  Selective Conscientious Objection in Healthcare. New Bioethics 2019 Sep; 25(3): 236-247, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1649861.

Is conscientious objection incompatible with healthcare professionalism?

Mary Neal, Sara Fovargue

The New Bioethics

Abstract

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.

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

Bruce Philip Blackshaw, Daniel Rodger

Journal of Medical Ethics

 Abstract

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]

Can conscientious objection lead to eugenic practices against LGBT individuals?

Toni C. Saad, Daniel Rodger

Bioethics

Abstract

In a recent article in this journal, Abram Brummett argues that new and future assisted reproductive technologies will provide challenging ethical questions relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. Brummett notes that it is likely that some clinicians may wish to conscientiously object to offering assisted reproductive technologies to LGBT couples on moral or religious grounds, and argues that such appeals to conscience should be constrained. We argue that Brummett’s case is unsuccessful because he: does not adequately interact with his opponents’ views; equivocates on the meaning of ‘natural’; fails to show that the practice he opposes is eugenic in any non-trivial sense; and fails to justify and explicate the relevance of the naturalism he proposes. We do not argue that conscience protections should exist for those objecting to providing LGBT people with artificial reproductive technologies, but only show that Brummett’s arguments are insufficient to prove that they should not.


Saad C, Rodger D.  Can conscientious objection lead to eugenic practices against LGBT individuals? Bioethics; 2019 Feb 08

Conscientious objection to abortion, the law and its implementation in Victoria, Australia: perspectives of abortion service providers

Louise Anne Keogh, Lynn Gillam, Marie Bismark, Kathleen McNamee, Amy Webster, Christine Bayly, Danielle Newton

BMC Medical Ethics

Abstract| Background: In Victoria, Australia, the law regulating abortion was reformed in 2008, and a clause (‘Section 8’) was introduced requiring doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion to refer women to another provider. This study reports the views of abortion experts on the operation of Section 8 of the Abortion Law Reform Act in Victoria.

Methods: Nineteen semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with purposively selected Victorian abortion experts in 2015. Interviews explored the impact of abortion law reform on service provision, including the understanding and implementation of Section 8. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed thematically.

Results: The majority of participants described Section 8 as a mechanism to protect women’s right to abortion, rather than a mechanism to protect doctors’ rights. All agreed that most doctors would not let moral or religious beliefs impact on their patients, and yet all could detail negative experiences related to Section 8. The negative experiences arose because doctors had: directly contravened the law by not referring; attempted to make women feel guilty; attempted to delay women’s access; or claimed an objection for reasons other than conscience. Use or misuse of conscientious objection by Government telephone staff, pharmacists, institutions, and political groups was also reported.

Conclusion: Some doctors are not complying with Section 8, with adverse effects on access to care for some women. Further research is needed to inform strategies for improving compliance with the law in order to facilitate timely access to abortion services.


Keogh LA, Gillam L, Bismark M, McNamee K, Webster A, Bayly C, Newton D. Conscientious objection to abortion, the law and its implementation in Victoria, Australia: perspectives of abortion service providers. BMC Medical Ethics201920:11.

Nurses’ use of conscientious objection and the implications for conscience

Christina Lamb, Marilyn Evans, Yolanad Babenko-Mould, Carol Wong, Ken Kirkwood

Journal of Advanced Nursing

Abstract

Aims: To explore the meaning of conscience for nurses in the context of conscientious objection (CO) in clinical practice. Design: Interpretive phenomenology was used to guide this study.

Data sources: Data were collected from 2016 ‐ 2017 through one‐on‐one interviews from eight nurses in Ontario. Iterative analysis was conducted consistent with interpretive phenomenology and resulted in thematic findings. Review methods: Iterative, phased analysis using line‐by‐line and sentence highlighting identified key words and phrases. Cumulative summaries of narratives thematic analysis revealed how nurses made meaning of conscience in the context of making a CO.

Impact: This is the first study to explore what conscience means to nurses, as shared by nurses themselves and in the context of CO. Nurse participants expressed that support from leadership, regulatory bodies, and policy for nurses’ conscience rights are indicated to address nurses’ conscience issues in practice settings.

Results: Conscience issues and CO are current, critical issues for nurses. For Canadian nurses this need has been recently heightened by the national legalization of euthanasia, known as Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada. Ethics education, awareness, and respect for nurses’ conscience are needed in Canada and across the profession to support nurses to address their issues of conscience in professional practice.

Conclusion: Ethical meaning emerges for nurses in their lived experiences of encountering serious ethical issues that they need to professionally address, by way of conscience‐based COs.


Lamb C, Evans M, Babenko-Mould Y, Wong C, Kirkwood Ken. Nurses’ use of conscientious objection and the implications for conscience. J Adv Nurs 2018 Oct 16. doi: 10.1111/jan.13869

Conscientious objection to participation in abortion by midwives and nurses: a systematic review of reasons

Valerie Fleming Lucy Frith, Ans Luyben, Beate Ramsayer

BMC Medical Ethics

Abstract | Background: Freedom of conscience is a core element of human rights respected by most European countries. It allows abortion through the inclusion of a conscience clause, which permits opting out of providing such services. However, the grounds for invoking conscientious objection lack clarity. Our aim in this paper is to take a step in this direction by carrying out a systematic review of reasons by midwives and nurses for declining, on conscience grounds, to participate in abortion.

Method: We conducted a systematic review of ethical arguments asking, “What reasons have been reported in the argument based literature for or against conscientious objection to abortion provision by nurses or midwives?” We particularly wanted to identify any discussion of the responsibilities of midwives and nurses in this area. Search terms were conscientious objection and abortion or termination and nurse or midwife or midwives or physicians or doctors or medics within the dates 2000–2016 on: HEIN legal, Medline, CINAHL, Psychinfo, Academic Search Complete, Web of Science including publications in English, German and Dutch. Final articles were subjected to a rigorous analysis, coding and classifying each line into reason mentions, narrow and broad reasons for or against conscientious objection.

Results: Of an initial 1085 articles, 10 were included. We identified 23 broad reasons, containing 116narrow reasons and 269 reason mentions. Eighty one (81) narrow reasons argued in favour of and 35 against conscientious objection. Using predetermined categories of moral, practical, religious or legal reasons, “moral reasons” contained the largest number of narrow reasons (n =  58). The reasons and their associated mentions in this category outnumber those in the sum of the other three categories.

Conclusions: We identified no absolute argument either for or against conscientious objection by midwives or nurses. An invisibility of midwives and nurses exists in the whole debate concerning conscientious objection reflecting a gap between literature and practice, as it is they whom WHO recommend as providers of this service. While the arguments in the literature emphasize the need for provision of conscientious objection, a balanced debate is necessary in this field, which includes all relevant health professionals.


Fleming V, Frith L, Luyben A, Ramsayer B. Conscientious objection to participation in abortion by midwives and nurses: a systematic review of reasons. BMC Medical Ethics. 2018;19:31. doi:10.1186/s12910-018-0268-3.