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Conscientious objection and its social context
  1. Ryan E Lawrence
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ryan E Lawrence, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Box 90, 1051 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10032, USA;rlawrence{at}

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Conscientious objection among physicians is a perennial hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic. Sven Nordstrand's survey of Norwegian medical students adds fresh data to this ongoing debate.1

Their starting point, whether doctors should be allowed to refuse any procedure to which they object on cultural, moral or religious grounds, is truly at the heart of the debate. Their finding that only 20.8% of students endorse this position is striking as it is less than half the number reported by Sophie Strickland (45.2%) in her survey of medical students in the UK.2 It also suggests much less support for conscientious objection than was found among USA primary care physicians, where 78% agreed that “A physician should never do what he or she believes is morally wrong, no matter what experts say.”3

These data invite speculation about why there is such dramatic variation between countries. Much can be made of Nordstrand's comments that in Norway “each citizen is assigned a particular general practitioner” and “In the Norwegian healthcare system the general practitioner has a crucial role as …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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