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“Conscientious objectors” block protection of legal healthcare for women (October 2010)

An attempt to ensure women's right to lawful medical treatment in Europe was defeated when the “pro-life” lobby moblised to prevent any censure of an unlimited right to conscientious objection on the part of doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

On 7 October 2010 a report was tabled at the Council of Europe showing how conscientious objection by medical personnel is denying women access to abortion and contraception, even when these are legally allowed. Known as the McCafferty Report, it can be downloaded here: Women’s access to lawful medical care: the problem of unregulated use of conscientious objection. However, the pro-life lobby managed to pass, in its own words, “a series of amendments which totally reversed the thrust of the report. The changes forced [the author of the report and her supporters] to vote against their own proposal”. [1]

The pro-life lobby considers this “both a concrete as well as symbolic victory” Although that the resolution does not have an “obligatory” character for parliaments and governments, passing this radically altered resolution will make it  “easier in internal and international courts to defend the right to conscientious objection in all the countries of the Council of Europe”. [2] 

The right of conscientious objection is now being used in a way that was unforeseen when it was first recognised. Exemptions were originally given to people like Quakers who believed it wrong to fight in wars and who served as medics instead. However, recently conscientious objection has been expanded far beyond this. It is now being used to block access to abortion and birth control, even where these are legal.

In 2004 a “conscience clause” was adopted in Washington. The same year the Vatican attempted to introduce this into the Europe through Slovakia. The plan was to get a “conscience concordat” passed there before Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004. This agreement with the Vatican didn't get through in time and the EU objected to it.

However, the vote which quashed the report means that now the pro-life lobby is making progress within the  government of the EU itself. “Afterwards, the pro-life activists who had lobbied members to support dozens of wrecking amendments to the resolution were jubilant.” [3]

In Britain similar conscience exemptions for pharmacists were discussed and ultimately approved earlier in the year. Pharmacists across the UK have been told they can continue to refuse to prescribe items that might clash with their personal religious beliefs. [4]

In terms of official clerical input, he UK Government goes even farther than the European one. It not only “consults” with clerics, but allows 26 unelected Church of England bishops to sit in the House of Lords, with the ability to alter or veto legislation passsed by democratically-elected representatives. 

Further reading

“Conscientious Objection in Medicine”, Meeting EPPSP 15 September 2010. (Videos of the five speakers)

The debate focussed on the rather extensive use of the right to conscientious objection on religious grounds in order to refuse legal medical interventions to do with sexual and reproductive health right (mainly abortion) and assisted dying.

“Women’s access to lawful medical care: the problem of unregulated use of conscientious objection”, (draft report for the Council of Europe which was effectively scuttled by the pro-life lobby on 7 October 2010).


1. “Breakthrough: Pro-life Lobby Soundly Defeats EU Attack on Conscience in Dramatic Reversal”, Life Site News, 7 October 2010.

2. “Culture of Life Scores at Council of Europe”, Zenit, 22 October 2010.

3. “Threat to conscience rights thrown out by Council of Europe”, Catholic Herald, 7 October 2010.

4. “New pharmacy code continues opt-outs over beliefs”, BBC, 25 March 2010.

Previous article: Council of Europe endorses “religious exemption” from human rights (May 2010) Next article: Vatican starts using powerful new European petition procedure (2012)
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