The protection of conscientious objection dates back to 1757 in the UK, and was again defended in the Human Rights Act 1998, which proclaims that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
During the two world wars, more than 76,000 conscientious objectors in the UK were accommodated for their beliefs on war and killing, according to Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton and member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
“Reasonable accommodation of conscientious objection is therefore a long-respected matter of liberty and equality in this country, and this respect should be as relevant as ever today,” said Bruce, who is advocating for the bill’s passage.
The bill would bar employers from discrimination or victimization of employees who make use of conscientious objection, and medical practitioners would be able to demonstrate conscientious objection simply by stating so under oath.
A 2016 report by the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group found that some doctors and nurses have faced discrimination in their workplace due to their personal beliefs against certain procedures. O’Loan particularly noted a legal case involving midwives Mary Doogan and Connie Wood, both of whom refused to supervise abortions because of their personal beliefs.
O’Loan also noted many other aspiring healthcare workers who want to pursue a career in obstetrics or gynecology, but do not do so because of their personal objections to abortion.
Some opposition to the bill has arisen from various groups, including the British Medical Association, which has filed a brief against the bill, saying objections to abortion will risk “patient access to safe and timely care.”
Other objections have been raised in the House of Lords, where some peers voiced concern over privileging religious beliefs.
However, Bruce noted that conscientious objection is not only a product of religious beliefs, but can also be formed on other bases.
“Conscience can equally be informed by a person’s philosophy, morality, beliefs, or scientific understanding,” Bruce remarked.
“To suggest that, for example, conscience is something applicable only to those with religious beliefs would be a grossly restrictive understanding of the concept,” she continued.
Toni Saad, a medical student at Cardiff University, noted that conscientious objection will not affect a doctor from doing what is best for their patient.
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“I doubt there is any conscientiously objecting doctor who believes he is not acting according to his patient’s best interests,” Saad wrote at The Spectator Feb. 23.
The bill, Saad said, “deserves the attention and support of those interested in liberty and tolerance, and those in a position to establish these in our statute books.”
If the measure is passed, it would affect all healthcare workers on the registers of the General Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the Health and Care Professions Council and the General Pharmaceutical Council in England and Wales.
The bill was introduced in the House of Lords and has passed its first and second readings. It is scheduled for a committee debate March 23. It would then face further scrutiny in the House of Lords before passing to the House of Commons, the consideration of amendments, and then the royal assent.
“Baroness O’Loan’s Bill is both timely and welcome, seeking as it does to clarify and affirm that, as a matter of law, no one with a conscientious objection should be compelled to be involved in activities which they believe involve the taking of human life,” said Bruce.
“[The bill] would be a concrete example of our commitment to a diverse and inclusive society, and would serve to strengthen the morale of those involved in healthcare, something surely no one – in all conscience – could deny is a good thing.”