Conscientious objection

A final-year medical student was carrying out a clinical attachment in her local Emergency Department. A patient attended for treatment for heavy bleeding following a termination of pregnancy. The student was reluctant to become involved in the patient's treatment because she strongly disagreed with abortion, on religious grounds. The student discussed her views with a colleague, who told her that doctors couldn't refuse to give treatment in this situation. Confused, she contacted the MDU for advice. 

MDU advice 

The student's colleague was correct. Doctors must not let their personal beliefs prejudice their treatment of patients and while a doctor has a right to refuse to take part in a termination of pregnancy, this does not mean that they can refuse to treat a patient who experiences complications of termination. 

From time to time MDU members call our medico-legal advice line for assistance with dilemmas concerning personal beliefs – theirs or a patient's. The ethical position is set out in GMC guidance Good medical practice (2013), paragraph 59 – "you must not unfairly discriminate against patients by allowing your personal views to adversely affect your professional relationships or the treatment you provide or arrange." 

In England, Wales and Scotland doctors have the right to refuse to participate in terminations of pregnancy under the Abortion Act 1967. However, a doctor cannot refuse to provide medical care to a patient who is awaiting or who – as in this situation – has undergone a termination of pregnancy. The GMC guidance is very clear on this point in Personal beliefs and medical practice (2013), paragraph 8: "...you must not refuse to treat the health consequences of lifestyle choices to which you object because of your beliefs."

This guidance was correct at publication 02/01/2015. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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