Is there too much conscientious objection in Canada?

The January issue of the journal Bioethics deals with conscientious objection, with an emphasis on the situation in Canada. The editors of the special issue are Carolyn McLeod and Jocelyn Downie who also run the feminist-oriented Conscience Research Group, based at the University of Western Ontario and Dalhousie University.

The articles deal with a range of topics, but all are sceptical of the claims of a conscience which would prevent an objecting doctor from refusing  even to refer for abortion. Avery Kolers, of the University of Louisville, argues that “When institutions are – or we conscientiously believe them to be – merely unjust, their directives still obligate us; when they are abusive, however, they do not.” In some cases, dissenters could be granted “licenses” which would allow them to avoid certain obligations (such as abortion, which is not an abusive procedure), but if the institution declined to grant a licence, the physician would be obliged to participate.

In one of the major articles, Jocelyn Downie and Jacquelyn Shaw argue that too many doctors and pharmacists are pleading their conscience in Canada.

“due to conscientious refusals to provide treatment or services, patient access to some health services – e.g. abortion – is seriously curtailed, potentially threatening patient health and wellbeing. We therefore need effective professional policies that permit acts grounded in conscience, but which also place reasonable limits on the exercise of conscience. Unfortunately, as this article shows, at least for some professions, Canada is severely impoverished in this regard.”

This article is published by Michael Cook and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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