May 22, 2022

Conscientious objection is ‘indefensible’, says WHO

The latest abortion care guidelines from the World Health Organization severely criticise conscientious objection (CO) as a major obstacle to making abortion freely available.

“Conscientious objection,” the WHO declared, “continues to operate as a barrier to access to quality abortion care … If it proves impossible to regulate conscientious objection in a way that respects, protects and fulfils abortion seekers’ rights, conscientious objection in abortion provision may become indefensible.”

Therefore, it recommends:

  • Ensuring the health care systems employ enough abortion providers
  • Regulating CO and penalising non-compliance
  • Banning institutional claims of conscience
  • Requiring doctors with CO to refer patients to doctors who will do abortions.
  • Banning CO in urgent or emergency situations

WHO argues that CO is often a significant barrier to women who want an abortion. It paints a dark picture of its toxic effects on women, on doctors, and on health systems:

Conscientious objection has significant workload implications for health workers. Where there are many objectors, non-objecting health workers have an increased workload, abortion provision is often stigmatized, and those who do provide abortion care may experience career limitation or discrimination. Unclear, unenforced or non-existent regulation and legal frameworks for conscientious objection can create burdens on health workers, including in navigating challenges associated with their conscience or ethics, cause workplace conflicts, result in non-clinical staff attempting to claim conscientious objection, and undermine organizational models for the delivery of abortion.

The new guidelines were criticised by Elyssa Koren, of ADF International, a legal group. She told CNA News:

“By stating that conscience rights may become ‘indefensible,’ these new guidelines make clear that the WHO aspires to not only flout international law, but also in due course, to change it …

“Put bluntly, the organization is looking to leverage its enormous influence and budgetary power to chip away at international provisions and eventually work to establish a new legal regime that endorses abortion ‘rights’ with no right to conscientious objection.”