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Does private conscience trump professional duty?
In the US, ambulance drivers have refused to transport patients for abortions, a fertility clinic refused to assist a gay woman and a pharmacist refused to give the morning-after pill to a rape victim.1 In the UK, the Catholic Church claims to be exempt from laws forbidding adoption agencies from discriminating against homosexuals.2 A growing number of professionals now assert a right of conscience, a right to refuse to do anything they deem immoral, and to do so with impunity. Such claims emerged 40 years ago when some doctors and nurses claimed a right to refuse to perform (or assist in performing) an abortion. Since then other medical professionals have followed suit, with pharmacists leading the way. Doctors now report “a stampede of pharmacists” claiming such a right.3 As one pharmacist explained it: “While they have the right to obtain the prescription, as an individual I always have my own rights not to fill it.”4
Although numerous people have criticised these medical professionals, few openly challenge this “right of conscience”. Rather, they have argued that these professions should establish mechanisms to ensure that people (usually women) who need healthcare are not obstructed or inconvenienced. This suggests that even their critics assume professionals have a right of conscience. In many ways, this is not surprising. There are good reasons why a government should not run roughshod over an individual’s conscience.
Benefits of conscience
There are personal and social reasons why a society should not ignore, quash or demean individual conscience. Individuals want to live their lives as they think best, and for many of us our moral beliefs are especially important. Most of us rebel against the idea that we can legitimately be forced to do what we think immoral. We empathise with those …
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