Although the federal government and most states have enacted laws protecting healthcare providers’ rights to refuse to provide or participate in procedures to which they have moral or religious objections, most such laws are deficient and many have been met with hostile judicial interpretations that have diminished their scope and strength.
This issue’s “Legal Briefing” column covers legal developments pertaining to conscience clauses and conscientious refusal. Not only has this topic been the subject of recent articles in this journal, but it has also been the subject of numerous public and professional discussions. Over the past several months, conscientious refusal disputes have had an unusually high profile not only in courthouses, but also in legislative and regulatory halls across the United States.
The right to conscientious objection is founded on human rights to act according to individuals’ religious and other conscience. Domestic and international human rights laws recognize such entitlements. Healthcare providers cannot be discriminated against, for instance in employment, on the basis of their beliefs.
The Constitutional Court of Colombia has issued a decision of international significance clarifying legal duties of providers, hospitals, and healthcare systems when conscientious objection is made to conducting lawful abortion. The decision establishes objecting providers’ duties to refer patients to non-objecting providers, and that hospitals, clinics, and other institutions have no rights of conscientious objection.
The practice of conscientious objection often arises in the area of individuals refusing to fulfil compulsory military service requirements and is based on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as protected by national, international and regional human rights law.