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.
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.
Debate persists over the place of conscience in medicine. Some argue for the complete exclusion of conscientious objection, while others claim an absolute right of refusal. This paper proposes that claims of conscientious objection can and should be permitted if they concern kinds of actions which fall outside of the normative standard of medicine, which is the pursuit of health. Medical practice which meets this criterion we call medicine qua medicine. If conscientious refusal concerns something consonant with the health-restoring aims of medicine, it entails a desertion of professional duty. If, however, it relates to something other than medicine qua medicine, it can rightly be refused. It thus becomes possible to test instances of conscientious objection to determine their validity, and thereby conserve both the principle of conscientious objection and define its scope. This test of conscience prevents arbitrary discrimination, and preserves doctors’ agency. It is a theoretical razor rooted in the practical reasoning of medicine whose operation will prompt, if nothing else, reflection on the goals of medicine.