Conscientious objection

A doctor's personal beliefs or conscientious objection to a treatment may prevent them from agreeing to carry out certain actions.

The GMC says doctors may practise medicine in accordance with their beliefs, provided the following criteria are fulfilled.

  • You must act in line with relevant legislation.
  • You must not treat patients unfairly.
  • You must not deny patients access to appropriate medical treatment or services.
  • You must not cause patients distress.

If any of these criteria cannot be met, doctors must provide effective patient care, advice or support, whatever their personal beliefs.

It's a good idea to be open with your employer and/or colleagues about your conscientious objection so that you're able to practise according to your beliefs and adequately address any situations where conflict or uncertainty may arise.

What should I do if I object to an action or procedure?

The GMC's Good medical practice (2013) makes it clear that, as a doctor, you must not unfairly discriminate against patients.

  • If you have a conscientious objection to a particular procedure, you must explain your position to the patient.
  • You must also tell them about their right to see another doctor, and give them enough information to exercise this right.
  • You mustn't imply or express disapproval of the patient's lifestyle, choices or beliefs.
  • If it is not practical for the patient to arrange to see another doctor, you must make sure arrangements are made for another suitably qualified doctor to take over your role.

The GMC expands on this in its guidance on personal beliefs and medical practice, which specifically advises that doctors mustn't allow personal views held about patients to prejudice assessment of their clinical needs or affect their access to care.

Bear in mind that the patient may be in a position of vulnerability, and you will need to act promptly to make sure they are given the appropriate treatment or services.

Especially in an emergency, no doctor should refuse to assist a patient solely because of a conflict with their own personal beliefs. The GMC's advice on collaborative teamwork states that, 'you must be aware of how your behaviour may influence others within and outside the team'.

Termination of pregnancy

For a doctor who feels unable to participate in procedures relating to termination of pregnancy, in England, Wales and Scotland the right to refuse is protected by law.

However, you do not have the right to refuse to provide medical care to a patient who is awaiting or has undergone a termination of pregnancy.

The GMC's guidance advises that, 'you must not refuse to treat the health consequences of lifestyle choices to which you object because of your beliefs'.

If faced with a difficult decision, you may wish to talk through the issues with one of our medico-legal advisers, who can provide advice on ethical and medico-legal issues to help you be confident in any decision you make.

This page was correct at publication on 07/02/2020. Any guidance 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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