If assisted suicide is legalized, will conscience be protected?

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Pixabay / Darko Stojanovic

Reverend Helen Hall, Associate Professor at Nottingham Law School, and Professor Javier Garcia Oliva, Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, examine the legal protections that might exist for physicians who do not wish to participate in assisted suicide if the practice being legalized in the UK.

The recent decision by the British Medical Association to drop its opposition to physician-assisted dying, and instead take a neutral stance on the issue, has caught the attention of those campaigning both for and against it. legalization of euthanasia.

A neutral position is of course extremely different from active support and it should also be noted that the ballot was extremely tight: 49% of the BMA members voted in favor of the motion, while 48% voted against. , and only 3% abstained.

As might be expected, as in the rest of society, opinions within the medical community are sharply divided on this issue.

However, there was much more consensus on the issue of conscience – if legal reforms are introduced to allow euthanasia, then the BMA will be firm in its demands that individual physicians be protected from involvement when it conflicts with their ethics or beliefs.

The strong emphasis on safeguarding the rights of clinicians will no doubt be welcomed by Christians. While there are undeniably different nuances of opinion within Christianity regarding the issue of physician-assisted dying, many churches and individuals view the deliberate and proactive ending of human life as contrary to the principles of their religion.

Undoubtedly, the same can be said of members of other religious communities, and even of some atheists and agnostics who have ethical objections to such practices. In general, even passionate supporters of the right to die recognize the importance of protecting medical personnel from forced participation.

Respect for freedom of conscience is an integral part of our legal and social culture, which makes it virtually inconceivable that Parliament would pass a law allowing euthanasia without including a clause allowing doctors, nurses and others to opt out. Such a decision would be politically absurd, as it would generate immense backlash and garner almost no approval.

In addition, in the highly unlikely event that a hypothetical law on assisted dying omits a conscience clause, the new law would undoubtedly violate Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This fundamental guarantee means that individuals have the right not only to hold religious, ethical and political beliefs, but also to put them into practice.

In other words, citizens are free to act in accordance with their religion and conscience, and this applies to employees during working hours. So, for example, the Strasbourg Court declared that an airline cannot prohibit a Christian from wearing a cross on the fragile justification of the company’s image.

This right to manifest beliefs may be limited only to the purposes set out in the treaty, namely: the protection of public safety, order, health or morals and the rights and freedoms of third parties. Furthermore, any restriction imposed must be proportionate to meet the need in the case, meaning that if a State goes beyond what is necessary to achieve its objectives, it will violate the Convention.

Concretely, assistance in dying should be subject to numerous controls, and a meticulous process should be carried out to ensure that the person asking for an end to his or her life makes a free and informed choice, that is to say -to say that the medical personnel involved in this situation would be a matter of planning, rather than a response to the crisis.

Since service providers would have the flexibility to make all arrangements in advance in these cases, it is difficult to imagine a plausible justification for requiring that a particular doctor or nurse participate against their will.

Limitations on freedom of conscience should be a matter of necessity, not convenience, and patients seeking assisted dying could benefit from them without the involvement of staff members with ethical conflicts.

But a warning must still be issued. So far, we have spoken of the letter of the law, but also of the general social consensus as it stands in the fall of 2021. Studies carried out by jurisdictions such as the Netherlands and Belgium, which have legalized euthanasia a few decades ago, showed a marked change in attitude as the population became more accustomed to the idea of ​​euthanasia. Approval rates have increased dramatically, even for euthanizing children under certain circumstances.

It is possible to imagine a future in which euthanasia is more widely accepted, and where people with conscientious objections are seen as more unusual or extreme in their perspective. Should this happen, it would be important to ensure not only that there is legal protection, but also that individuals are not subjected to peer pressure or stigma when it comes to doing so. to access.

Whichever route law reform takes, provisions relating to freedom of conscience will likely be included, but its effectiveness will depend on the social context in which it is invoked.


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