In the Service of Human Life
Tree on a hill on a starry night
Applied Bioethics in stylized text
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In the Service of Human Life

Why Conscience Rights

Imagine you grew up in a family of butchers. For three generations, your family has operated a small but successful meat market in town, preparing and selling your fine meats. People travel from all over to buy your family’s meat products, and as a result of your family’s labors, your community is able to feed itself.

At a young age, you start learning the family business. You follow your grandfather around, learning his techniques. After graduating from high school, your family sends you to the finest culinary school in Europe to further refine your craft. Years of study, a lifetime of passion, and diploma in hand, you return home to carry on your family’s legacy.

While your meat market stocks an array of products, your family is also devoutly Jewish. Therefore, you don’t sell pork. The community understands, and they appreciate the work that your family does. It’s not that big of a deal, there’s a small grocery store down the block from your meat market where people can buy whatever pork products their recipes require.

One day, a government official comes into your market and declares that your family must sell pork. You, reasonably, protest. There has not been a complaint about your lack of pork in generations, there’s pork at the other store, and you only don’t work with pork because of your deeply held religious beliefs. Too bad for you, the government shuts down your meat market, revokes your business license, and your economic fortunes take a turn for the worst.

Silly, right?

The butcher wasn’t forcing an agenda on anyone. They weren’t demanding that their customers refrain from eating pork. They offered a select line of product, and pork was readily available to anyone who wanted it. They were enjoying the freedom and economic benefit that autonomy brought to them. A single shift in political will in three generations, and they were run out of the business that they worked so hard to build.

This scenario illustrates the primordial importance of conscience rights for healthcare workers. These clinicians have dedicated their lives and staked their personal economic future on the study and practice of medicine. To compel them to prescribe a medication or complete a procedure that is in conflict with their moral or religious beliefs, is a grave affront to their autonomy.

The importance of conscience rights cannot be understated. The independence and autonomy of clinicians is a principal benefit to the patient. By accepting and respecting the clinician’s medical decision making, we can have justified true belief that they will act in their patient’s best interests.

Requesting a physician to do something that violates their moral or religious beliefs creates a conflict of autonomy. Neither a patient’s nor a physician’s autonomy can supplant the others. Rather, they should work together to find a different solution or the patient should seek treatment somewhere else. Ethical subjugation is not a solution.