Catholics call for conscientious objection protections
A growing number of Catholic professionals are defending the long-held principle of the primacy of conscience against increasing calls for mandatory COVID-19 vaccination in different settings.
The Australian Catholic Medical Association (ACMA) this month wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other state and territory leaders to plead for protections for health and medical staff who have a conscientious objection to COVID-19 vaccination.
“we are growing increasingly concerned by the push to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory, including in health care settings” – Letter on behalf of ACMA
It came as Hobart’s Archbishop Julian Porteous sought an exemption for priests with a conscientious objection from Tasmania’s public health directive that anyone entering aged care homes from September 17 to be vaccinated or have bookings for their vaccination.
In addition, a number of senior academics working at the University of Notre Dame Australia across a range of schools, including medicine and philosophy, have signed a background paper outlining core principles, including respect for individual conscience, bodily autonomy, accommodation and exemptions which they believe should inform Catholic educational institutions’ responses to government health policy directives.
Chaplain to the Australian Catholic Medical Association Fr Paschal Corby OFM Conv. says that its call on the Government to respect conscientious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine is directly aligned with Catholic teaching.
“Ours is not an anti-vaccination claim or even a statement on the validity of encouraging vaccination in certain contexts, especially in health,” Fr Corby told The Catholic Weekly.
“Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that people may have objections in conscience and that the conscience is a sacred thing and therefore needs to be taken into account and respected, which any form of coercion or any form of mandatory vaccination contradicts.
“From a Catholic point of view we hold the dignity of conscience, both in terms that one should both be able to act on one’s conscience as well as one should not be forced to act against their conscience by external pressure.”
Vaccine ‘coercion’ unacceptable, exemption policies needed
The letter on behalf of ACMA signed by Fr Corby, who acts as the organiser’s bioethical advisor, says that as medical professionals, “we understand and support the need to safeguard people from the terrible COVID-19 virus”.
“However, we are growing increasingly concerned by the push to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory, including in health care settings. Recently, the Australian Catholics Bishops Conference held that ‘no one should be coerced to receive any vaccine’ and that ‘vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation’, and we wish to assert that principle should be applied to medical practitioners,” the letter read.
“While we disagree in principle with vaccine mandates, any attempt to establish such mandates should have a clear and straight forward exemption policy for conscientious objection which does not place undue burdens, or involve discrimination.”
Legitimate concerns may include a moral objection to the production of the vaccines in question and a reasoned objection to the risk of side effects of vaccination, both immediate and long-term.
Rapid antigen testing is just one way that risk could be minimised to staff and patients without requiring vaccination of staff with conscientious objections, the ACMA says.
In Hobart, Archbishop Porteous said he had not yet received a reply from the Tasmanian Government in response to his proposal for a protocol for priests with a conscientious objection to the COVID-19 vaccines who needed to minister in aged care facilities.
“I asked the government for advice to see if a very small number of priests in Tasmania who have a conscientious objection to receiving a COVID vaccine, could be tested using a rapid antigen testing kit prior to entering an aged care facility to continue their ministry,” the archbishop said in a statement. “I proposed that the testing be carried out by a medical practitioner to ensure the priest is free of the virus; ensuring the safety of staff and clients at the aged care facility.”
Duty to protect the most vulnerable
Meanwhile Catholic Health Australia, the peak advisory body for not-for-profit hospitals and aged care, including St Vincent’s Health Australia, St John of God Healthcare, CatholicCare and St Vincent de Paul NSW, has been strongly promoting mandatory vaccination to protect the most vulnerable groups.
It has called on the Federal Government to mandate the vaccination of disability support workers, as well as aged care providers in community settings.
Across the country it is already compulsory for residential aged care workers and health workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We have a duty to protect the most vulnerable in our community and we can start by requiring our staff to be vaccinated,” said CHA Director of Mission and Strategy Rebecca Burdick Davies.
“These workers are going into people’s homes and moving around the community – it is part of their job description. Their place of work is the community and we have learned that the Delta variant spreads rapidly via mobile workforces.”