By Jill McManus of Drs for Choice UK & NI, MSFC.
A letter in the press recently outlined some inaccuracies around Conscientious Objection for Healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland come 22nd October. As part of our ongoing myth-busting blog series, we have one here that will outline the landscape with regard to Conscientious Objection (CO).
Proponents of CO believe that doctors may object due to deeply held personal religious beliefs for certain procedures, however may give excellent care in other areas of medicine; for example a doctor in Obstetrics & Gynaecology, who objects to abortion may be extremely skilled in handling complex deliveries or in caring for patients with gynaecological cancers.
It is also possible to personally object to a procedure while respecting the patient and maintaining their dignity by referring them immediately to another medical professional who can accommodate their needs. Those in favour of CO see it ideally as happening in a way that does not impede patients in accessing healthcare.
Finally, forcing healthcare professionals to participate in procedures to which they conscientiously object may result in the patient having a negative experience and ideally those providing in terminations of pregnancy would be doing so to provide the best quality care to their patients. Similarly, patients would prefer to be treated by medics who are supportive of their decisions.
It is of course important that patient care and patient safety is always put first, and conscientious objection should be treated conscientiously. It should not be a ‘default’ position and those working in healthcare must be educated and informed on all options regarding pregnancy. Otherwise we could end up in a situation like Italy where CO becomes a barrier to accessible abortion healthcare.
In order to prevent CO being used as a tactical barrier to abortion care:
1. Only an individual can conscientiously object, not a whole department, hospital or practice.
2. One cannot conscientiously object to providing emergency or life-saving care.
3. One must refer a patient to another member of staff who can provide the service to which they conscientiously object, quickly.
The General Medical Council guidance makes this very clear for doctors in Northern Ireland; conscientious objection is possible, but patients need to know that they have a right to see another doctor within a reasonable time frame.
Doctors must also not express their personal beliefs to patients in a way to cause them distress, which includes not implying any judgement of the patient on their choice to access care.
Doctors must not obstruct patients in accessing care. Doctors acting outside of this guidance may have their registration put at risk.
Alliance for Choice support the concept of ‘conscientious commitment’ and the provision of role models to healthcare staff, medical students, doctors, nurses and midwives who commit to providing high quality, patient-centred abortion care. Termination of pregnancy is a hugely important and common aspect of reproductive and sexual healthcare services.