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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Women’s health under threat from doctors’ conscientious objections

When religion and medicine clash, it is often women who suffer most. A survey shows that an increasing number of medical students think doctors should be able to refuse any procedure that is against their beliefs. The procedure that causes the most contention is, as always, abortion.

In general, support for a doctor’s right to refuse any procedure that is against their conscience was highest among Muslim medical students at 76.2% while 54.5% of Jewish students thought the same, as did 51.2% of Protestants and 46.3% of Catholics. However, 35% of non-religious students also thought there was a place for conscientious objection.

There are of course non-religious people who oppose abortion and some objectors in the survey were non-religious. But more than double the proportion of Muslim students than others would refuse an abortion when contraception failed. A higher percentage of Muslim students than others would object to prescribing contraception. Nearly eight percent of them also stated they would object to ‘intimately examining a person of the opposite sex’.

Doctors opting out of certain procedures is only part of the problem. If the number of medical students prepared to carry out a termination — or even to learn how to do it — is shrinking, then women will find it hard to access abortion safely and quickly in the future.

The research paper on the survey concluded that ‘Once qualified as doctors, if all these respondents acted on their conscience and refused to perform certain procedures, it may become impossible for conscientious objectors to be accommodated in medicine’. It also states that ‘The views of large numbers of Muslim students are contrary to General Medical Council (GMC) guidelines, and thus the medical profession needs to think about how it will deal with the conflict’.

Guidance drawn up by the GMC advises doctors to refer a patient to a colleague if they object to a certain procedure or treatment. They must also give patients enough information so they can seek treatment elsewhere within the NHS.

Although Muslim students are clearly a growing problem, Muslims are not the only ones to object to certain procedures. The Christian Medical Fellowship, which has 4,000 members, is also strongly anti-abortion, for example. Almost a third of the students surveyed wouldn’t perform an abortion for a congenitally malformed foetus after 24 weeks, a quarter wouldn’t for failed contraception before 24 weeks and a fifth wouldn’t even perform an abortion on a minor who had been raped.

Tessa Kendall, Senior Campaigns Officer for the NSS commented: “Unless action is taken, the UK could potentially become more like Italy where nearly 70% of gynaecologists refuse to perform abortions on moral grounds and 50% of anaesthetists refuse to assist even though abortion is legal”.

The NSS has already written to the GMC as part of their consultation on conscience opt-outs.

On the related subject of pharmacists refusing to dispense emergency contraception (morning after pill), we submitted a report to the General Pharmaceutical Council.

Published Fri, 22 Jul 2011