A Defence of Conscientious Objection in Medicine: A Reply to Schuklenk and Savulescu

Bioethics. 2016 Jun;30(5):358-64. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12233. Epub 2015 Dec 10.


In a recent (2015) Bioethics editorial, Udo Schuklenk argues against allowing Canadian doctors to conscientiously object to any new euthanasia procedures approved by Parliament. In this he follows Julian Savulescu's 2006 BMJ paper which argued for the removal of the conscientious objection clause in the 1967 UK Abortion Act. Both authors advance powerful arguments based on the need for uniformity of service and on analogies with reprehensible kinds of personal exemption. In this article I want to defend the practice of conscientious objection in publicly-funded healthcare systems (such as those of Canada and the UK), at least in the area of abortion and end-of-life care, without entering either of the substantive moral debates about the permissibility of either. My main claim is that Schuklenk and Savulescu have misunderstood the special nature of medicine, and have misunderstood the motivations of the conscientious objectors. However, I acknowledge Schuklenk's point about differential access to lawful services in remote rural areas, and I argue that the health service should expend more to protect conscientious objection while ensuring universal access.

Keywords: abortion; conscientious objection; euthanasia; physician-assisted suicide.

Publication types

  • Comment

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced / ethics*
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Canada
  • Conscience*
  • Dissent and Disputes*
  • Euthanasia / ethics
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Moral Obligations*
  • Morals
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Physicians / ethics
  • Pregnancy
  • Refusal to Treat / ethics*