May 24, 2024

Canadian ethicists prepare for the worst

They may not have the right to conscientious objection over euthanasia.

Conscientious objection seems like the paradigmatic ethical choice between right and wrong. An ethicist, of all people, ought to have this option, just as mathematicians count or sopranos sing.

Not so fast, write two healthcare ethicists at the Centre for Applied Ethics at McGill University Health Centre, in Montreal, in the blog Impact Ethics. Now that the Canadian Supreme Court has declared that euthanasia is a human right, it is time to focus on who is entitled to conscientious objection to participating in euthanasia. And perhaps ethicists are not.

We found ourselves asking the following questions: Should a clinical ethicist have the right to conscientious objection in cases of medical aid in dying? Can the role of the clinical ethicist to provide ethics analysis in matters of moral ambiguity be reconciled with a right to opt-out on the basis of personal convictions?

The nub of the question is this: when an ethicist is asked for advice, is she involved as a human being or is she merely a database of ethical choices? The ethicists write:

On the other hand, there is a growing consensus that clinical ethics expertise is grounded in the competence of the clinical ethicist to facilitate a robust process aimed at ensuring fair and transparent healthcare decisions. The clinical ethicist is expected to adopt a stance of neutrality which allows her to facilitate discussion of competing values without allowing her own beliefs to influence the discussion. 

On this view, it is not the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the final outcome by which the clinical ethicist is professionally judged, but rather her skill in guiding various stakeholders through a reasonable process; a clinical ethicist’s personal convictions should not impact on her ability to facilitate this process. In this sense, perhaps the right to conscientious objection is antithetical to the provision of clinical ethics consultation, as it seems to call into question the profession’s ability to remain neutral on morally contentious issues.

There is an urgent need, the authors write, to articulate the rights and duties of healthcare ethicists, as in the wake of Carter v Canada, the euthanasia case, the boundaries will be tested.

It would be interesting indeed if Canadian ethicists who oppose euthanasia are told to pack their bags and look elsewhere for jobs. What do unemployed ethicists do? Work in Starbucks? Become an Uber driver? There are some great ideas at the website of the Unemployed Philsophers Guild — making coffee mugs, finger puppets, and scented soap.
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conscientious objection