Law & Politics

Conscientious objection in Australia: A comparison between VAD and abortion

Conscientious objection is defined, according to Peter Butt, as "an objection to partaking in certain forms of behaviour … on moral grounds". Such a belief "must be distinguished from a mere intellectual persuasion". Disagreeing with a particular course of action is not the same as conscientiously objecting to it. An objection based on conscience must be a moral objection.

There's a spectrum of opinion on the role that conscientious objection should play in healthcare. At one end of the spectrum is unmitigated use of conscientious objection. This is the usual or traditional approach to conscientious objection in the healthcare context. A doctor with a conscientious objection to a particular medical practice simply refuses to participate in that practice for reason of conscience.

The predominant criticism of such an unmitigated form of conscientious objection is that it essentially leaves the patient in the lurch. This is why an ‘obligation to refer’ is sometimes advocated.

Proponents of an ‘obligation to refer’ take the view that it is unacceptable to leave a patient in the lurch. They believe that the least a medical practitioner with a conscientious objection can do is refer the patient on to someone without a conscientious objection. Others oppose this approach on the basis that it renders those with a conscientious objection complicit in the act.

Further along the spectrum are those who take the view that conscientious objection should not be an option. These ...

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About Ronli Sifris

Dr Ronli Sifris is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Monash University and Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. She researches in a number of areas of health law, including voluntary assisted dying, abortion and surrogacy. She is a recipient of the RSA Patrons Grant.