June 4, 2021

World Medical Association Proposal Would Require Conscientious Objectors to Refer Patients

The World Medical Association has proposed changes to the International Code of Medical Ethics (ICoME) which would undermine the conscientious objections of doctors who refuse to commit abortion or euthanasia. If doctors object, they would be required to refer their patients to doctors willing to complete the controversial procedures.

The current ICoME language reads:

"Physicians have an ethical obligation to minimise disruption to patient care. Conscientious objection must only be considered if the individual patient is not discriminated against or disadvantaged, the patient’s health is not endangered, and undelayed continuity of care is ensured."

But the proposal would significantly alter the code by adding the following phrase to the end of what is written above:

"[… is ensured] through effective and timely referral to another qualified physician."

UK Professor David Albert Jones of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre at Oxford decried the proposed changes in a press release. He argued that doctors have the duty to object to procedures that are "harmful, discriminatory, unjust or unethical," and the new language would completely undercut this duty. He also argued that conscientious objection does not conflict with patient care.

Jones wrote,

if a doctor objects in conscience to participation in torture or capital punishment or to force feeding of a prisoner who is on hunger strike, it would be unprincipled for them to find someone with fewer scruples to do the deed for them. To require a conscientious objector to facilitate delivery of the procedure to which they object is a direct attack on person’s conscience and moral integrity, and thus a serious harm to them. It would be much better to say nothing about conscientious objection than to undermine it by imposing a requirement for “effective and timely referral”. 

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