Why is it that doctors and pharmacists and politicians are allowed to override other people’s right of conscientious objection?
On “The Big Questions” today on the BBC various people are discussing solemnly how far a doctor gets to have his conscience made yours. I use the male pronoun deliberately. The traditional balance was enshrined in law when the majority of doctors were men – when it was legal for medical schools to have a 30% quota of women. That traditional balance is that the doctor gets to have his conscience respected: the pregnant woman can follow her conscience to an abortion only if two doctors approve. Medical students are allowed to refuse to learn how to perform an abortion safely – and there’s a worrying trend among our future doctors who believe a doctor’s conscience overrides that of their patient’s. Nor is it just doctors: two nurses recently tried to sue a Scottish health authority for the “right” to refuse care to patients because they were having an abortion.
The privilege which doctors and nurses are granted that they need not perform abortions against their conscience ought to be a very narrow one. The prolife movement in the US has worked to expand this privilege so greatly that it is now being openly identified as a war on women.
There exist doctors who will only provide contraception to married women: doctors who think the best way of preventing teenage pregnancy is to refuse teenagers access to contraception. This denial tends to be enforced much more strongly for all forms of contraception used by women, but it is still illegal (for example) in England and Wales to send condoms by post. Teenagers in remote or rural locations who want to have safe sex… apparently, that’s not important. Teenage girls who don’t want to get pregnant: Nadine Dorries is against that.
MPs are usually allowed a free vote on access to abortion, giving their conscience the right to override the needs of their constituents. Nadine Dorries and Frank Field are the MPs who have most recently abused that right to campaign for Parliament to overrule a doctor’s views and a patient’s conscience; but for all David Cameron’s patronising dismissal of Nadine Dorries, his government is listening to the prolife movement – and making use of state resources to persecute women’s health clinics, in a way chillingly similar to Republican attacks on healthcare providers in the US.
The whole idea behind the prolife movement is that it is right to force women through pregnancy and childbirth against their will. The political campaigning in the US against a women’s right of conscience works on the idea that a pregnant woman may be too stupid to understand that if she decides to have an abortion, this means she won’t be having a baby.
In this week’s news, researchers applied themselves to the question of whether or not women, by virtue of being female, are terminally stupid, or what. Common sense says no, based on a quick survey of all the things women do that they couldn’t if they were terminally stupid: drive cars, feed themselves, hold jobs, read and process information. Sadly, however, old-fashioned bigotry trumps common sense all the time, which is why Republican legislatures across the country are passing laws—mandatory ultrasounds, anti-choice lectures, and waiting periods—based on the premise that women who are seeking abortions are literally too stupid to understand that doing this means they don’t get to have a baby in the next six to nine months.
Prolife political campaigning in the UK is fortunately not so far advanced. But prolife campaigners do routinely assert falsehoods which they appear to get directly from the US campaigns. SPUC is a prime example. The worrying thing about the prolife movement in the UK is not that it is religious – religion does not equate to denying a woman’s right of conscience – but that it appears to be very much a Christian Right campaign inspired and possibly funded from the US.
We saw at the SPUC Off demo in Edinburgh – and this seemed to be repeated round the country – that the prolife campaigners could afford large, professionally-printed, heavy placards – which are not cheap. (The prochoice campaigners showed up with cardboard handpainted signs, t-shirts with marker-pen writing, and vandalised sheets.) They have money. Where are they getting it from?
Nadine Dorries has been identified as backed by the Lawyers’s Christian Fellowship and the Christian Medical Fellowship. The Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship is strongly linked to the Alliance Defence Fund, a wealthy Christian Right campaigning group in the US.
And while Dorries has publicly flip-flopped a bit on how far she wants the state to force women, her long-term strategy appears to be an extremist prolife stance that will deny any rights to women.
From the 1980s onwards, the Christian Right in the US has created a galloping force that makes use of keywords like abortion, feminism, homosexuality, to strongly encourage low-income voters to vote against their economic best interests and in favour of extremist right-wing politicians who are using the right keywords in the right way. Fred Clarke, himself an American evangelical Christian, notes that the Christian Right belief that “life begins at conception” and that abortion is always unlawful, is “younger than McDonalds Happy Meal” – it was not inspired by the Roe vs Wade decision: it got going in the Christian Right after Ronald Reagan was elected President.
But the big question is: Why is it that a doctor or an MP has a right of conscience that should be allowed to override a woman’s conscience with regard to her own pregnancy?
The General Medical Council’s guidelines are firm: a medical student’s right to freedom of expression does not override their obligation to become properly qualified. Yet in 2010 a study with responses from over 700 medical students found:
In response to question 5 ‘Do you think that doctors should be entitled to object to any procedure for which they have a moral, cultural or religious disagreement?’, a total of 327 (45.2%) respondents agreed with the statement, 294 (40.6%) students disagreed, while 103 (14.2%) were unsure.
Yes, doctors have a right of conscience. But that right of conscience does not trump their patient’s right of conscience. Steven Sumpter wrote here about doctors who evangelise and the GMC’s guidelines (they’re against it) – and a doctor who claims a religious justification for denying a valid medical treatment to a patient – is, simply, evangelising. No NHS doctor has a right to do that: no doctor ought to do that, certainly not unless their patient has made a private, prior contract with them that they don’t object to being instructed in the doctor’s religion. As for the pharmacists who think their right of conscience trumps a woman’s right to contraception…. they ought to be struck off.