May 30, 2024

More on conscientious objection

Conscientious objection to procedures like abortion and euthanasia often features in BioEdge. There is a growing consensus that CO has no place in modern medicine. It’s often argued nowadays that a doctor’s duty is to carry out the wishes of patients, regardless of whether they agree with them or not.

I stumbled across an interesting hypothetical on the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics which makes me question this consensus. In it, three bioethicists analyse a situation involving a difficult patient with deep Christian convictions. He is refusing post-operative pain medication because he believes that he needs to suffer in order to atone for his life as an alcoholic. What should the physician do?

The bioethicists conclude that he should neither acquiesce nor refer the patient to another doctor who will acquiesce. Instead, the physician should “refuse to offer this course of action, regardless of the religious rationale for such a request”.

They go on to assert that “Indeed, as part of their professional commitment to the patient’s health, physicians have some obligation to respectfully challenge patients' refusals of medical care that the physician believes is needed. A sincere discussion—even a respectful debate—in no way denigrates [his] religious beliefs.”

Indeed, this makes good sense. But, viewed from another angle, the bioethicists are advising the physician to conscientiously object to a course of action determined by a lucid patient after serious consideration. They even counsel him to argue (respectfully) with the patient to convince him that he is wrong.

If this is so obviously the case, why is it wrong for a doctor to refuse to perform an abortion? I’m having trouble reconciling the ethical reasoning of the two situations. Can anyone help? 

Michael Cook
An interesting hypothetical
conscientious objection