The Australian Medical Association has upheld the right of doctors to refuse to perform procedures to which they have a conscientious objection, such as abortion and euthanasia, however Catholic doctors have expressed concern that the updated policy is unclear and misrepresents the nature of conscientious objection.
“A conscientious objection occurs when a doctor, as a result of a conflict with his or her own personal beliefs or values, acknowledges that they cannot provide, or participate in, a legal, legitimate treatment or procedure that would be deemed medically appropriate in the circumstances under professional standards,” a statement from the AMA read.
“A conscientious objection is based on sincerely-held beliefs and moral concerns, not self-interest or discrimination.”
However, the Australian Catholic Medical Association has said the definition is “inadequate” and “implies a subjective position disconnected from accepted or ‘appropriate’ medical care.”
“This misrepresents the true nature of Conscience and the issue of Conscientious Objection by unfairly characterising the positions held by conscientious objectors,” the ACMA told The Catholic Weekly.
“Contrary to the AMA’s misunderstanding, conscientious medical practitioners may object to various laws (such as refugee policies) and legally sanctioned medical interventions (such as abortion and euthanasia) not because of ‘personal belief or opinion’ (irrespective of the firmness of conviction), but because they consider such laws and interventions to be contrary to the truth of the human person and, therefore, contrary to good health care.”
Lecturer at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Law, Anna Walsh, also disagreed with the AMA’s definition of conscientious objection.
“The policy reveals an interesting position on what the AMA believes a conscientious objection is,” Ms Walsh told The Catholic Weekly.
“It attempts to differentiate between objections to treatment that are based on ‘legitimate medical or legal reasons’ and those based on ‘personal beliefs or values’. It seems to imply that once a service is deemed to be legal, moral objections to it are disconnected from medical reasoning.
“This is simply not the case, and suggests a heavy reliance upon the legality of the service as evidence of it being of medical benefit to the patient without unpacking the fact that any laws in this area still reduce down to a moral position.”
AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, said doctors were entitled to have their own personal beliefs and values, however, “doctors have an ethical obligation to minimise disruption to patient care and must never use a conscientious objection to intentionally impede patients’ access to care.”
The AMA’s updated policy stipulates that doctors with a conscientious objection should inform patients and employers of their objection in advance, take whatever steps necessary to ensure the patient’s access to care is not impeded, refrain from expressing their own personal beliefs to the patient in a way that may cause them distress, and always provide medically appropriate treatment in an emergency situation even if that treatment conflicts with their personal beliefs and values.
The policy also allows for conscientious objection on the part of institutions. It states that such institutions should inform the public of their conscientious objection, highlighting their stance on the institution’s website, patient brochures or on posters at the front of the facility.
“Dictating the details for institutional action, such as clear signage outside care facilities, appears to go beyond the AMA’s brief as an organisation for representing doctors and advising them of their rights and responsibilities,” the ACMA responded.