Beyond Money: Conscientious Objection in Medicine as a Conflict of Interests

Alberto Giubilini, Julian Savulescu

Beyond Money: Conscientious Objection in Medicine as a Conflict of Interests


Conflict of interests (COIs) in medicine are typically taken to be financial in nature: it is often assumed that a COI occurs when a healthcare practitioner’s financial interest conflicts with patients’ interests, public health interests, or professional obligations more generally. Even when non-financial COIs are acknowledged, ethical concerns are almost exclusively reserved for financial COIs. However, the notion of “interests” cannot be reduced to its financial component. Individuals in general, and medical professionals in particular, have different types of interests, many of which are non-financial in nature but can still conflict with professional obligations. The debate about healthcare delivery has largely overlooked this broader notion of interests. Here, we will focus on health practitioners’ moral or religious values as particular types of personal interests involved in healthcare delivery that can generate COIs and on conscientious objection in healthcare as the expression of a particular type of COI. We argue that, in the healthcare context, the COIs generated by interests of conscience can be as ethically problematic, and therefore should be treated in the same way, as financial COIs.

Giubilini A, Savulescu J. Beyond Money: Conscientious Objection in Medicine as a Conflict of Interests. Bioethical Inquiry 17, 229–243 (2020).

A right to be unconscious

Julian Savulescu, Janet Radcliffe-Richards


[Referring to Sinmyee et al] This seems to us to be an important, landmark paper. This is because the issues it addresses are important in their own right: how to ensure death without suffering in jurisdictions where assisted dying (including assisted suicide or euthanasia) is allowed, and also, because the technicalities are the same, in cases of capital punishment by lethal injection. Moreover, the paper shows the potential for the use of anaesthesia in contexts beyond surgery. Anaesthesia in its ordinary uses is intended to facilitate surgery designed to restore a patient to improved health and functioning. In assisted dying, however, there is no question of restoring health. The proposition is to use anaesthesia primarily to prevent suffering in a patient who is about to die and, in this sense, places anaesthesia on a new footing as a primary medical intervention, serving a purpose in its own right.

Savulescu J, Radcliffe-Richards J.  A right to be unconscious. Anaesthesia. 2019 May; 74(5): 557-559

Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception

Julian Savulescu, Udo Schuklenk


Abstract:  In an article in this journal, Christopher Cowley argues that we have ‘misunderstood the special nature of medicine, and have misunderstood the motivations of the conscientious objectors’. We have not. It is Cowley who has misunderstood the role of personal values in the profession of medicine. We argue that there should be better protections for patients from doctors’ personal values and there should be more severe restrictions on the right to conscientious objection, particularly in relation to assisted dying. We argue that eligible patients could be guaranteed access to medical services that are subject to conscientious objections by: (1) removing a right to conscientious objection; (2) selecting candidates into relevant medical specialities or general practice who do not have objections; (3) demonopolizing the provision of these services away from the medical profession.

Savulescu J, Schuklenk U.  (2016) Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception. Bioethics. doi:10.1111/bioe.12288

Conscience, values, and justice in Savulescu

Alvan A. Ikoku

AMA Journal of Ethics


Savulescu’s 2006 article in the British Medical Journal takes up perennially unfinished work on the nature and place of conscience, carried out against the background of contested laws shaped by states and their institutions as well as peoples and their professions. His writing on conscientious objection essentially returns to and intervenes in an extended conversation made possible by continued shifts in relations between individual citizens and loci of authority; shifts that characterized the mid-to-late decades of the twentieth century, when debates about war, civil rights, reproduction, and capital punishment made objection a vital mode of participation and engendered fields of practice and scholarship organized around the mission to decentralize decision making.

Ikoku AA. Conscience, values, and justice in Savulescu. Virtual Mentor. 2013;15(3): doi: 10.1001/virtualmentor.2013.15.3.jdsc1-1303.

Conscientious objection in medicine

Julian Savulescu

British Medical Journal

Shakespeare wrote that “Conscience is but a word cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe” (Richard III V.iv.1.7). Conscience, indeed, can be an excuse for vice or invoked to avoid doing one’s duty. When the duty is a true duty, conscientious objection is wrong and immoral. When there is a grave duty, it should be illegal. A doctors’ conscience has little place in the delivery of modern medical care. What should be provided to patients is defined by the law and consideration of the just distribution of finite medical resources, which requires a reasonable conception of the patient’s good and the patient’s informed desires (box). If people are not prepared to offer legally permitted, efficient, and beneficial care to a patient because it conflicts with their values, they should not be doctors. Doctors should not offer partial medical services or partially discharge their obligations to care for their patients. . .

Savulescu J. Conscientious objection in medicine. BMJ. 2006 February 4; 332(7536): 294–297. doi:  10.1136/bmj.332.7536.294