Archbishop launches book on medical ethics

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP addresses the rally outside Parliament House in Sydney on 18 November. photo: Giovanni Portelli

Bioethical concerns are front and centre, with Archbishop Anthony Fisher launching a new book on the right to conscientiously object a mere day after the founder of Victoria’s “Reason Party”, Fiona Patten, announced she would introduce a bill to target Catholic hospitals who refuse to provide abortions.

Archbishop Fisher launched Dr Xavier Symons’ Why Conscience Matters: A Defence of Conscientious Objection in Healthcare at the Australian Catholic University’s North Sydney campus on 2 August.

“Xavier’s argument for a broad right to conscientious objection is not an appeal for the freedom arbitrarily to foist personal tastes upon patients but rather a claim that we must ensure clinicians have every opportunity to become the best at what they do by ensuring their moral and professional integrity.”

“Dr Symons highlights the shortfalls of thinking of healthcare as simply service provision—in Fiona Patten’s terms ‘providing the full range of services’—where doctors are considered manufacturers or retailers or civil servants and where patient preference is the primary factor in decision-making,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“Such a conception of medicine risks devolving into a mechanistic practice, where doctor and patient are opposite sides of a transactional exchange, where decisions are made only by recourse to official guidelines however constructed, and where protocols and procedures trump personhood and thinking humanely.”

Dr Xavier Symons’ Why Conscience Matters: A Defence of Conscientious Objection in Healthcare Book Cover
Dr Xavier Symons’ Why Conscience Matters: A Defence of Conscientious Objection in Healthcare Book Cover

The exercise of conscience is crucial for doctors, nurses and other health practitioners to grow in their ability to make moral judgments, an important part of providing healthcare.

 

“Xavier’s argument for a broad right to conscientious objection is not an appeal for the freedom arbitrarily to foist personal tastes upon patients but rather a claim that we must ensure clinicians have every opportunity to become the best at what they do by ensuring their moral and professional integrity,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“This may mean they sometimes refuse to take part in activities others judge worthy. This must be respected.”

While institutions do not exercise conscience in the same way as individuals, they can nevertheless damage their integrity by acting against, or being forced to act against, their ethos.

“Here we might think of a Catholic hospital choosing to close its doors rather than kill any of its patients, or perform unethical research, or put profit before people: to risk losing such a hospital, as the ideologues are willing to do, is to lose all the good that hospital does and will do in the future,” Archbishop Fisher said.

Dr Symons told The Catholic Weekly that in the context of the healthcare debate it was useful to conceive of conscience as a “personal engagement with morality”.

“We should as a rule be looking to cultivate rather than suppress conscience in healthcare”.

“It’s what makes the difference between us merely complying with moral standards, and feeling like morality matters to our self and character, and that living moral virtue is important for our own moral maturity,” he said.

“We should as a rule be looking to cultivate rather than suppress conscience in healthcare”.

He added that there was scant evidence to support the claims of critics that allowing healthcare practitioners to refuse to provide certain procedures, such as abortions or euthanasia, would harm patients, especially women.