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Conscientious objection to referrals
  1. Thomas Finegan
  1. Correspondence to Dr Thomas Finegan, Theology and Religious Studies, Mary Immaculate College, Ireland; thomas.finegan{at}


Christopher Cowley1 has recently put forward three arguments against the legal accommodation of a general practitioner’s conscientious objection (CO) to abortion referrals.i He claims that the adoption of these arguments does not undermine a more general right to CO to involvement in abortion. I argue that Cowley is seriously mistaken. His three arguments, especially the second and third, proceed on a path directed towards the outright rejection of a right to CO in healthcare contexts. A common problem with Cowley’s three arguments is that they overlook the peremptory significance for CO analysis of both the internal, deliberating perspective of those with a CO and the good of moral integrity. This paper supports the view that either there are strong prima facie grounds for holding that a right to CO extends in principle to the issue of referrals or the claim of a general right to CO is easily assailable.

  • conscientious objection
  • referral
  • moral integrity
  • abortion

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  • i Cowley’s discussion refers specifically to the British situation as defined by the operational structures of the National Health Service and the legal provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act. Yet his arguments and my counter-arguments are not limited to that situation, and can be applied, for example, to the emerging debate in Ireland over CO in the context of any legislation tabled pursuant to the recently passed abortion referendum. I intend my counter-arguments to apply to GPs and other healthcare professionals who are significantly part of a public health service.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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