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My Conscience May Be My Guide, but You May Not Need to Honor It


A number of healthcare professionals assert a right to be exempt from performing some actions currently designated as part of their standard professional responsibilities. Most advocates claim that they should be excused from these duties simply by averring that they are conscientiously opposed to performing them. They believe that they need not explain or justify their decisions to anyone, nor should they suffer any undesirable consequences of such refusal.

Those who claim this right err by blurring or conflating three issues about the nature and role of conscience, and its significance in determining what other people should permit them to do (or not do). Many who criticize those asserting an exemption conflate the same questions and blur the same distinctions, if not expressly, by failing to acknowledge that sometimes a morally serious agent should not do what she might otherwise be expected to do. Neither side seems to acknowledge that in some cases both claims are true. I identify these conflations and specify conditions in which a professional might reasonably refuse to do what she is required to do. Then I identify conditions in which the public should exempt a professional from some of her responsibilities. I argue that professionals should refuse far less often than most advocates do . . . and that they should be even less frequently exempt. Finally, there are compelling reasons why we could not implement a consistent policy giving advocates what they want, likely not even in qualified form.

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I wish to thank participants at the Conscience and Conscientious Objection in Healthcare Conference at Oxford University for their helpful comments on the paper presented there. I especially thank Eva LaFollette for encouraging me to address this issue. I also thank Ingmar Persson, Alberto Giubilini, and Julian Savulescu, the conference organizers, and to the editors and reviewers of submissions to this special issue of the CQ for their incisive feedback on two versions of the article.

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Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
  • ISSN: 0963-1801
  • EISSN: 1469-2147
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-quarterly-of-healthcare-ethics
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