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

When Policy Produces Moral Distress: Reclaiming Conscience

Nancy Berlinger

The Hastings Center Report


For too long, bioethics has followed law in reducing “conscience” to “conscientious objection,” in other words, to laws and policies permitting and protecting refusal. In “Reframing Conscientious Care: Providing Abortion Care When Law and Conscience Collide,” Mara Buchbinder and colleagues draw our attention to one dimension of the problem of reducing conscience to refusal to provide certain forms of medical care: what about the conscience problems experienced by the professionals who are attempting to provide safe, effective health care that includes services that others associate with conscientious objection? In seeking to disrupt a specific medical practice – one that is legal, desired by the patient, and conducted in accordance with medical standards – North Carolina House Bill 854, The Women’s Right to Know Act, and laws like it, appear to be designed to produce moral distress in physicians and other professionals involved in the provision of abortions. For abortion providers in North Carolina and other states, conscientious objection to the mandates of laws like HB 854 isn’t a realistic option. So what can bioethics offer to professionals bound by such laws? We can start by reclaiming the idea of “conscience” as something that can say “yes” to providing health care.

Berlinger, N. (2016), When Policy Produces Moral Distress: Reclaiming Conscience. Hastings Center Report, 46: 32–34. doi: 10.1002/hast.547

Moral distress and moral conflict in clinical ethics

C. Fourie



Much research is currently being conducted on health care practitioners’ experiences of moral distress, especially the experience of nurses. What moral distress is, however, is not always clearly delineated and there is some debate as to how it should be defined. This article aims to help to clarify moral distress. My methodology consists primarily of a conceptual analysis, with especial focus on Andrew Jameton’s influential description of moral distress.

I will identify and aim to resolve two sources of confusion about moral distress: (1) the compound nature of a narrow definition of distress which stipulates a particular cause, i.e. moral constraint, and (2) the distinction drawn between moral dilemma (or, more accurately, moral conflict) and moral distress, which implies that the two are mutually exclusive.

In light of these concerns, I argue that the definition of moral distress should be revised so that moral constraint should not be a necessary condition of moral distress, and that moral conflict should be included as a potential cause of distress. Ultimately, I claim that moral distress should be understood as a specific psychological response to morally challenging situations such as those of moral constraint or moral conflict, or both.

Fourie C. Moral distress and moral conflict in clinical ethics. Bioethics. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12064