'In good conscience': conscience-based exemptions and proper medical treatment

Med Law Rev. 2015 Spring;23(2):221-41. doi: 10.1093/medlaw/fwv007. Epub 2015 May 5.


Lack of clarity about the proper limits of conscientious refusal to participate in particular healthcare practices has given rise to fears that, in the absence of clear parameters, conscience-based exemptions may become increasingly widespread, leading to intolerable burdens on health professionals, patients, and institutions. Here, we identify three factors which clarify the proper scope of conscience-based exemptions: the liminal zone of 'proper medical treatment' as their territorial extent; some criteria for genuine conscientiousness; and the fact that the exercise of a valid conscience-based exemption carries certain duties with it. These restricting factors should reassure those who worry that recognising rights of conscience at all inevitably risks rampant subjectivity and self-interest on the part of professionals. At the same time, they delineate a robust conscience zone: where a claim of conscience relates to treatment with liminal status and satisfies the criteria for conscientious character, as well as the conditions for conscientious performance, it deserves muscular legal protection.

Keywords: Conscience; conscience-based exemptions; conscientious objection; professional ethics; professional obligations; proper medical treatment.

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced / ethics
  • Abortion, Induced / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Bioethics*
  • Conscience*
  • Contraception, Postcoital / ethics
  • Embryo Research / ethics
  • Embryo Research / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Ethics, Professional
  • Euthanasia / ethics
  • Euthanasia / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Human Rights*
  • Humans
  • Professional Autonomy*
  • Refusal to Treat / ethics
  • Refusal to Treat / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Terminal Care / ethics
  • Terminal Care / legislation & jurisprudence
  • United Kingdom