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Expert group on abortion seeks to limit the conscience rights of doctors

Author: Admin
Date: 29th November 2012

The Government's Expert Group report, published on Monday, recommends that the right of doctors and other medical staff to conscientiously object to abortion must be limited.

The report which suggests that the Government legalise abortion either through legislation or through regulations, in line with the X case decision, also seeks to limit conscience in other respects.

One recommendation is that doctors must “treat [conduct an abortion] in circumstances when the risk of death [to the mother] is inevitable and imminent”.

The authors of the report acknowledge that “conscientious objection is provided for in most ethical guidelines and has existed with good reason for many centuries”. (See pages 42 and 43).

However, they say doctors who object to carrying out abortions would be required to hand over any necessary medical files or information for the purpose and to inform the patient of her right to ascertain whether she qualifies for an abortion.

They also suggest that doctors and other medical staff who refuse to perform abortions should be forced to refer to a doctor “who is not a conscientious objector”.

The report says: “A balance ought to be achieved between ensuring a patient’s access to lawful medical treatment whilst also recognising an individual’s conscientious objection, insofar as possible.  

“Hence, an individual right to conscientious objection needs to be provided for with limitations to ensure that patients would not be kept from accessing lawful treatment from other practitioners.”

It adds: “From experience in other jurisdictions, an issue may also arise as to the application of conscientious objections and who may be entitled to it in practice. In this regard, the options include clearly prescribing who can avail of this prerogative, or leaving that up to the professional regulatory bodies and employers.”

“Most jurisdictions accept that an individual’s right to conscientious objection is not absolute and often has limitations. This is because the right to conscientious objection must be balanced against someone else’s competing rights, for example, the right to life in the case of a medical emergency.”

In 2010, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe defeated a motion which called for the right of medical professionals to conscientiously object to performing abortions to be “regulated”.  

The report said that conscientious objection should be limited to doctors and nurses but not to medical institutions like hospitals, that doctors and nurses with an objection to a procedure such as abortion must refer the patient to someone who does not have such an objection, and that in ‘emergencies’ they must carry out the procedures themselves.

The report, entitled “Women's access to lawful medical care: the problem of unregulated use of conscientious objection”, had also suggested that States should compel health-care providers to perform euthanasia on patients under certain circumstances and that a ‘registry of conscientious objectors’ be created.

However, the report was transformed by a series of amendments into a resolution affirming the right to conscientiously object to abortion.

The final resolution of the report read: “no person and no hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion [...]”.

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