Secular doctors have today voiced serious concern about the Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) bill which had its first reading in the House of Lords on 4th June 2015. A serious failing of the proposed bill, they say, is that it lacks substantive detail about what constitutes ‘withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment’ – thus increasing the very confusion it seeks to ‘clarify’. A spokesman for the Secular Medical Forum said that the proposed bill would extend the rights of doctors and nurses to withdraw from providing treatment to some vulnerable patients who have different beliefs and values.
Conscientious objection rights for doctors and nurses are already statutorily defined. This bill seeks to expand those rights relating to abortion and to clarify those related to withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment.
Dr Antony Lempert, a practising GP and chair of the Secular Medical Forum, said: ‘Conscientious objection to the active participation in the ending of someone’s life or performing an abortion is fairly uncontroversial. However, patients must not be left in a position whereby the doctor is abandoning them because they have chosen a particular reasonable, legal treatment option. Patients making informed treatment choices should be supported by healthcare professionals whether or not their beliefs and values are shared.’
He went on to say: ‘The risk is that granting doctors and nurses wider freedoms to withdraw from providing care, risks compromising the provision of care; this is something we have seen in other countries such as Italy where some patients have been unable to access abortion services.’
Dr Lempert expressed his concerns that the bill appears to undermine the Doogan and Wood Supreme Court judgment in December 2014. In this case, two midwives seeking an exemption from any abortion-related activity were advised that, whilst they did not need to participate in any aspect of the abortion itself, their professional responsibilities did extend to the wider roles such as supervision of nursing colleagues.
‘Doctors and nurses choose our professions; patients don’t choose to need our professional expertise’ he said. ‘Healthcare professionals should take responsibility for choosing a suitable role that will not bring their own beliefs into conflict with the care they are expected to provide to patients. Where there is conflict, doctors may need to set aside their own personal beliefs in order to provide care as specified in GMC guidance for doctors’.