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J Med Ethics 38:701-702 doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-101076
  • Ethics briefings

Ethics briefings

Religious expression and freedom of conscience

In September 2012, a group of UK test cases relating to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights—the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion—were taken to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).1 The cases include a geriatric nurse, Shirley Chaplin, who is arguing that her employer's prohibition on the wearing of visible crosses at work breaches her Article 9 right and is also in breach of Article 14, the prohibition against discrimination. The test cases include a wedding registrar who does not wish to officiate at same-sex weddings and a relationship counsellor who does not wish to provide counselling to same-sex couples. The case of the geriatric nurse in particular invites reflection on the wider question of the extent to which rights to express or to manifest religious belief can and should be limited by professional obligations. Recent research published in this journal surveying medical students’ attitudes to conscientious objection showed that out of 733 students surveyed, more than 50% thought that doctors should have a right not to participate in any procedure to which they had a conscientious objection.2 In addition, 5% of those surveyed objected to performing intimate examinations of the opposite gender and 8% objected to involvement in treating patients suffering from alcohol intoxication.

In its guidance, the regulatory body in the UK for doctors, the General Medical Council (GMC), does not seek to prohibit doctors from exercising a conscientious objection but states clearly that a doctor's first duty ‘is to make the care of your patient your first concern…You must not allow any personal views that you hold about patients to prejudice your assessment of their clinical needs or delay or restrict their access to care.’3 In relation to medical students, the GMC states that its guidance for …