Conscience rights for public health workers

The Government has refused point-blank to give civil registrars a right of conscientious objection vis-a-vis civil partnership ceremonies. Doctor

The line is that once you are a public servant you must do whatever the State requires of you, come what may, with no exceptions.

In other jurisdictions this kind of thinking is starting to permeate the health-care system. The argument is that if you work in a State hospital, you must be willing to carry out ANY medical procedure that takes place in that hospital if you are suitably qualified, including abortion.

Given the logic of the Government’s position, it would have to agree with this policy if we ever legalise abortion here (and under X-case conditions it is already technically legal).

The Government’s thinking on the rights of public employees is, in fact, incredibly blunt and unsophisticated.

Here is a rather more sophisticated take on the issue in the context of health workers and their conscience rights. I take this from the excellent blog, Mirror of Justice. It is posted by Bob Vischer:

“Kent Greenawalt, not surprisingly, offered a treasure trove of thoughtful comments and questions about rights of conscience.

He does not believe that individual religious claims of conscience should be privileged over non-religious claims, but he does believe that institutional claims of conscience should be limited to religious organizations because they are fundamentally separate from the state.

At the individual level, he would look to four factors for determining whether a health care professional should have her claim of conscience recognized: 1) the portion of the job duties affected by the claim; 2) her expectations (e.g., was she training at time when abortion was illegal?); 3) “calling” and 4) public expectations.

I found the third factor — calling — to be the most interesting and unexpected. Kent explained that some jobs seem to entail a greater sense of calling than other jobs, which means that there is a greater cost entailed by having to give it up.

He tentatively offered his view that folks who decide to become nurses or doctors do so out of a sense of calling more frequently than a lawyer or druggist.

This is obviously open to debate, but it struck me as a creative way to avoid the contention that our recognition of conscience claims is a function of professional elitism (lawyers and doctors are entitled, pharmacists usually aren’t, cashiers definitely aren’t). I

In terms of the limits on a provider who is otherwise entitled to claim conscience, Kent would look to “substantial inconvenience” to the customer as the guide, and what constitutes substantial inconvenience may change depending on the service in question. Having to drive 30 miles for an abortion would not qualify as substantial inconvenience, but having to drive 30 miles for the morning-after pill might.”

Someone should try and apply Greenawalt’s four criteria to civil registrars. It would be interesting to see what they would come up with. As for the Government, it simply doesn’t recognise conscience rights for public employees at all. That is a VERY extreme position