Tuesday 19 July 2011

SPUC's Anthony McCarthy responds to a survey of medical students' abortion objections

Anthony McCarthy, SPUC's new Education and Publications manager, has responded to a survey* published today in the Journal of Medical Ethics (JME). An abridged version of Anthony's comment has been adapted for the SPUC website but do read his unabridged version below:
"The new survey found that nearly half of medical students believe in the right of doctors to conscientiously object to any procedure – with demand for a right not to perform a given procedure particularly high among Muslim students. Of 733 medical students surveyed,
“almost a third of students would not perform an abortion for a congenitally malformed foetus up to 24 weeks, a quarter would not perform an abortion for failed contraception before 24 weeks and a fifth would not perform an abortion on a minor who was the victim of rape.”
The current GMC guidelines hold that where medical practice conflicts with a doctor’s religious or moral beliefs, the doctor is expected at least to explore with the patient their ability to find another doctor - the implication being that this doctor will comply. In light of this, it’s worth highlighting that the survey found that
“not all students in the survey who objected to the idea of performing an abortion would necessarily conscientiously object to performing it in practice”.
What is happening, and how, that strong ethical objections are somehow overridden?

If doctors are trained to act as mere facilitators of the desires of their patients and of the DoH’s aims then they have ceased to be members of a noble profession with a clear internal ethic. Indeed, any doctor not heeding his/her conscience, in line with the natural moral law, cannot be said to be operating within the Hippocratic tradition. While it is encouraging that many medical students, especially Muslims, are standing up for their autonomy in relation to fundamental moral truths concerning life and fertility, it is troubling that Dr Sophie Strickland, the survey's author, prominent ethicists and professional bodies view such autonomy as a problem. Conscientious objection - unlike abortion - is a fundamental human right protected by international law. The problem is not medical students asserting their rights to conscientious objection, in line with Hippocratic respect for human life, but the distortion of medicine by unethical practices such as abortion.""
*Conscientious objection in medical students: a questionnaire survey, Strickland SLM J.Med Ethics 2011

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