Conscientious objection in medicine should not be tolerated

Conscientious objection in medicine; BMJ Volume 332, pp 294-7

A doctor's conscience should not be allowed to interfere with medical care, argues an ethics expert in this week's BMJ.

A doctors' conscience has little place in the delivery of modern medical care, writes Julian Savulescu at the University of Oxford. If people are not prepared to offer legally permitted, efficient, and beneficial care to a patient because it conflicts with their values, they should not be doctors.

Imagine an intensive care doctor refusing to treat people over the age of 70 because he believes such patients have had a fair innings. Or imagine an epidemic of bird flu or other infectious disease that a specialist decided she valued her own life more than her duty to treat her patients. Such a set of values would be incompatible with being a doctor.

The argument in favour of allowing conscientious objection is that to fail to do so harms the doctor and constrains liberty. This is true, says the author, but when conscientious objection compromises the quality, efficiency, or equitable delivery of a service, it should not be tolerated.

He believes that doctors who compromise the delivery of medical services to patients on conscience grounds must be punished through removal of licence to practise and other legal mechanisms.

Values are important parts of our lives. But values and conscience have different roles in public and private life, he writes. They should influence discussion on what kind of health system to deliver. But they should not influence the care an individual doctor offers to his or her patients.

The door to "value-driven medicine" is a door to a Pandora's box of idiosyncratic, bigoted, discriminatory medicine. Public servants must act in the public interest, not their own, he concludes.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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