February 22, 2024

UK Parliament to debate conscientious objection

A website, the Free Conscience Campaign, launched to back bill

Baroness O'Loan, former Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland  

A Northern Ireland peer has introduced a bill into the House of Lords to guarantee the controversial right to conscientious objection. Baroness Nuala O’Loan says that her Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill is needed to protect medical professionals:

Reasonable accommodation of conscientious objection is a matter both of liberty and equality: of individual freedom and social inclusion. No one should be coerced by the risk to their careers into violating their conscience, and it is plainly inconsistent with the principles of equality legislation to exclude whole sections of society from areas of medical employment simply because of their moral beliefs. I hope this excites support from across the country that allows us to fix this deficit of legal rights and protections”.

According to the Free Conscience Campaign, a recently launched lobby group, existing law is inadequate for protecting the conscientious rights of medical professionals. A parliamentary inquiry in 2016 found that some doctors and nurses face difficulties due to their conscientious objection to practices that they believe end a human life, such as withdrawing food and fluid from a dying patient in end of life care.

The conscience rights of midwives were also undermined by a 2014 Supreme Court judgment, which held that the conscience provision in the Abortion Act 1967 did not cover aspects of their employment.

The bill is sure to create debate as it gains momentum in Parliament. When it was first proposed in 2015, the chair of the Secular Medical Forum, Dr Anthony Lempert, commented:

“The risk is that granting doctors and nurses wider freedoms to withdraw from providing care risks compromising the provision of care; this is something we have seen in other countries such as Italy where some patients have been unable to access abortion services.”

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