Conscientious Objection Bill to be debated in UK Parliament

This Friday Baroness O’Loan’s Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords.

The Bill proposes to clarify the rights of freedom of conscience/conscientious objection for medical practitioners in three areas of medical practice: withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment; treatment given under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990; and abortion. It also seeks to introduce a provision which would protect medical practitioners from being discriminated against because they have conscientiously objected to participation in a medical procedure.

The Bill only applies to England and Wales, however, its progress should be of interest to people in Scotland. A similar bill could be presented to the Scottish Parliament.

Conscientious objection is a widely respected concept with considerable international and national laws, guidance, and conventions protecting the right. There are, however, restrictions, and this is highlighted in the case of the two Glasgow midwives, Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood, who take their case all the way to the UK Supreme Court. The two midwives ultimately lost their argument that they should not be forced to be indirectly involved in abortion procedures, such as delegating tasks or supervising those directly involved in abortions.

This narrowing of the law of conscientious objection fails to appreciate the moral significance of involvement in the abortion procedure, be it direct or indirect involvement.

A recent ComRes poll found that a majority of the public oppose forcing doctors to participate in abortion procedures against their will if they want to remain in their profession.

The Conscientious Objection Bill introduced by Baroness O’Loan seeks to remedy a number of problems around conscientious objection. CARE has provided a very useful briefing on the Bill and it says the Bill seeks to:

  • introduce a statutory right to conscientious objection to the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment. While professional guidance currently does provide a degree of protection for medical practitioners working with patients at the end of life, this provision would provide clarity and certainty for medical practitioners and those managing the NHS;
  • reverse the interpretation of “participating” by the Supreme Court judgement in Doogan by ensuring medical practitioners have a legal right to object to indirectly participating in abortion and the definition of “participating in an activity”; and
  • provide employment protection from discrimination for those who seek to utilise conscientious objection provisions.  Evidence of concern about employment discrimination was acknowledged by the British Medical Association (BMA) in their submission to the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group’s 2016 Report on Freedom of Conscience in Abortion Provision.  The report also documented experiences of healthcare professionals who had provided evidence that they would not be able to progress in their careers if they objected to abortions (e.g. to becoming a consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology) and others who reported direct discrimination. Much was made of the attitudes of colleagues and supervising staff as to how easy it is for an individual to express their freedom of conscience and remove themselves from particular procedures.

Baroness O’Loan said: “I believe this is a timely and important Bill that should attract support across both Houses. Reasonable accommodation of conscientious objection is a matter both of liberty and equality: of individual freedom and social inclusion. No one should be coerced by the risk to their careers into violating their conscience, and it is plainly inconsistent with the principles of equality legislation to exclude whole sections of society from areas of medical employment simply because of their moral beliefs. I hope this excites support from across the country that allows us to fix this deficit of legal rights and protections.”

You can follow the debate live on Parliament TV.

Y0u can also sign up to the Free Conscience Rights for All Campaign and urge your MP to support the Bill.