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What the Student British Medical Journal says about conscientious objection

Abortion is legal, and doctors exist to serve patients. So should a doctor be required to provide a service if women are legally entitled to it? The ethicist Julian Savulescu equates the legality of an act with its justness in a passionate article against conscientious objection. History, however, tells us that such an argument does not stand. Doctors in Nazi Germany took part in the sterilisation of patients with epilepsy and schizophrenia and in the murder of old, disabled, and other burdensome patients, doing their duty under laws that sanctioned active euthanasia. Any praise we give to medics in that regime rightly belongs to the conscientious objectors.

Many of our present day counterparts around the world are placed in situations with which we might be profoundly uncomfortable. These include the death penalty and torture. If the law says that death is the appropriate penalty for certain crimes, should a state registered doctor be able to opt out of his duty to give the lethal injection? If torture is considered a reasonable way to extract information from a criminal, as it seems to be in Guantanamo Bay, should the medic treat a prisoner, patching him up enough for further interrogation? Most of us hope for the courage to conscientiously object in these situations.

Statutory law and moral law are not synonymous in content because statutory law can change with time. The Declaration of Geneva used to affirm the “utmost respect of human life from the time of its conception.” Since 1984 “from the time of its conception” has been absent. In 1983 the doctor who is against abortion is in agreement with the codified morals of his profession, but in 1984 it is a grey area. Morality is surely not so fickle?

Conscientious objection in medicine is rarely an easy way out. It may add to paper work, complicate relationships with colleagues, and leave the doctor feeling vulnerable and isolated. However, history shows that rapid changes of law is reason enough to uphold the doctor’s right to raise conscientious objection. We may never all agree on what is the right thing to do in difficult clinical and moral situations. But we need more doctors, not fewer, who are willing to defend what they think is right.


The law in New Zealand

A doctor, medical student or nurse may have a conscientious objection to participating in an abortion on humanitarian conviction, that abortion is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.

Your conscientious objection is bound to be respected under Section 46 of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of 1977, which states:

“No registered medical practitioner, registered nurse, or other person shall be under any obligation (a) to perform or assist in the performance of an abortion…if he objects to doing so on grounds of conscience.”


The full text of Section 46

Conscientious objection

(1) Notwithstanding anything in any other enactment, or any rule of law, or the terms of any oath or of any contract (whether of employment or otherwise), no medical practitioner, nurse, or other person shall be under any obligation—

  • (a) To perform or assist in the performance of an abortion or any operation undertaken or to be undertaken for the purpose of rendering the patient sterile:
  • (b) To fit or assist in the fitting, or supply or administer or assist in the supply or administering, of any contraceptive, or to offer or give any advice relating to contraception,—

if he objects to doing so on grounds of conscience.

(2) It shall be unlawful for any employer—

  • (a) To deny to any employee or prospective employee any employment, accommodation, goods, service, right, title, privilege, or benefit merely because that employee or prospective employee objects on grounds of conscience to do any act referred to in subsection (1) of this section; or
  • (b) To make the provision or grant to any employee or prospective employee of any employment, accommodation, goods, service, right, title, privilege, or benefit conditional upon that other person doing or agreeing to do any thing referred to in that subsection.

(3) Every person who suffers any loss by reason of any act or omission rendered unlawful by subsection (2) of this section shall be entitled to recover damages from the person responsible for the act or omission. (4) Nothing in this section limits or affects the provisions of section 5. Subsection (1) was amended, as from 18 September 2004, by section 175(1) Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 (2003 No 48) by omitting the word “registered” in both places it occurred. See sections 178 to 227 of that Act as to the transitional provisions.

Subsection (4) was substituted, as from 1 July 1996, by section 143(1) Medical Practitioners Act 1995 (1995 No 95). See clause 2 Medical Practitioners Act Commencement Order 1996 (SR 1996/162). Subsection (4) was substituted, as from 18 September 2004, by section 175(1) Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 (2003 No 48). See sections 178 to 227 of that Act as to the transitional provisions.

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