The Shrinking Limits of Medical Conscience

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Some well-credentialed professors have recently spoken out against any meaningful rights of conscientious objection in Canadian medicine.

Udo Schuklenk, a professor of philosophy and holder of an Ontario research chair in bioethics at Queen’s University, recently co-authored a journal article arguing “that physicians have no right to opt out of lawful medical services — from abortion to prescribing contraceptives — that are requested by a patient and in the person’s interest,” according to the National Post.

Over at the Globe and Mail, University of Ottawa law professor Daphne Gilbert has argued that “Catholic hospitals have no right to refuse assisted dying.”

It is disturbing when experts in philosophy and law, two disciplines that place a high priority on nuanced argument, offer such coarsely argued opinions on matters of such delicacy and import. When smart people say not-so-smart things, usually they are being impelled by some deeply felt passion.

What’s wrong with their reasoning?

Schuklenk is well known in ethics debates as a totalitarian. The government has decreed X and everyone should fall into line regarding X, particularly anyone whose work draws any support of any kind (pay or privilege) from the state.

Put that way, I trust that the reader will immediately feel uneasy, if not outraged.

Just because a government says something is legal should not mean that we all are obliged to act as if it is right. Lots of bad behaviour is legal, but decent people rightly object to it and abstain from it. They certainly shouldn’t be compelled to engage in it.

Moreover, the right to abstain from an action contrary to one’s conscience is not just essential to the very idea of being a professional, but should be extended to anyone except in the gravest and most compelling of crises and on the most basic principles of our culture.

The issues here are not of that nature, particularly as alternatives are available elsewhere for those who seek them. And if the reply is given that one might have to travel a bit to find a compliant medico, the rejoinder is that conscience should matter more than convenience.

Forcing health care professionals to participate in procedures that to them are deeply troubling, if not in fact morally contradictory, ends up only in one or another absurdity: jailing good people; preventing good people from joining or practicing said professions; or crushing the conscience of good people, thus paving the way for still more acquiescence to whatever this year’s politicians and polls say is morally right.

Is that what we want for Canada and Canadians?

For her part, Professor Gilbert evidently shares the common, but erroneous, modern idea that the practice of religion is confined to prayers, worship services, Scripture reading, and the like—you know, the odd things that those religious people do off in their odd little places on weekend mornings.

She recalls the Loyola High School v. Quebec case only to dismiss it out of hand: Offering health care, she declares, is not a bona fide “religious purpose,” and therefore not entitled to Charter protection of conscience.

Sure, the hospital can provide chaplains and worship services and the like. That’s religious stuff. But not health care. That’s something else.

Alas, the idea that healing the sick and caring for the dying is not an intrinsic part of the Christian religion stands up poorly to even the briefest historical survey of that faith. Healing the sick turns out to have been a hallmark of the careers of, well, just to pick at random, Jesus Christ. And his Apostles. And the saints through the ages. And Christian benevolence all over the world over two millenia.

Gilbert might retort, as she says in the article, that “no publicly funded hospital is organized for the purpose of providing religious care,” but she provides no ground for that dictum. And she works in Ontario, which since Confederation has publicly funded Catholic separate schools, which from a Catholic point of view certainly do serve a “religious purpose”—as, indeed, does Loyola High School in Quebec.

Many people want our governments to do the right thing in this or that area of medical care and are so passionate about that right thing that they want to forbid anyone from opting out. Christian people can understand and even sympathize with that fervor, as we have often been doctrinaire when we held the cultural reins.

But such authoritarian righteousness is not “glorious and free.”

Is that what we want for Canada and Canadians?

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John serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. He is the author of nine books, the editor of four more, and the author of over 600 articles, book chapters, and reviews in academic publications, major newspapers, and magazines. His writings range over history, sociology, philosophy, theology, ethics, and comparative religion. He has spoken throughout North America, in the United Kingdom, and in China, India, Israel, Korea, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. His commentary on religion and contemporary culture has been featured by major broadcast and print media as diverse as The New York Times, The Atlantic, ABC News, CBC Radio, Time, and Reader’s Digest.

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