Center for Bioethics

Conscientious Objection

Members of professions are expected to use their education and skills while upholding standard practices, duties toward society, and responsibilities toward those that they serve, as described in Professionalism. Ethics in Medicine, 1998].

By one account, health professionals seek to advance patient welfare, to respect the decisions patients make, and to act in ways that promote health fairly and without discrimination, as described in Medical Professionalism in the New Millennium: A Physician Charter, 2002].

However, members of the health professions in the United States increasingly reflect the diversity of the broader society. These individuals bring a variety of deeply held beliefs and values to their professions. Some of these professionals (nurses, doctors, pharmacists, students and others) find themselves confronting conflicts between their deeply held moral or religious values and the expectations of their profession and patients.

For example, a health care provider may find that his or her moral integrity is at odds with the professional expectations. Should a nurse with religious objections to assisted reproduction be asked to stop working in obstetrics and gynecology? Can a pharmacist with moral objections to emergency contraception refer a patient to a colleague without being complicit in a perceived moral wrong-doing? Should religious organizations be required to provide or pay for objectionable health services? When, if ever, is a patient’s health and well-being more important than a professional’s moral integrity?

The information guide, “Conscientious Objection in the Healing Professions: A Guide to the Ethical and Social Issues” can help students, professionals and interested readers identify key readings on the various topics related to conscientious objection in the healing professions. The guide provides a short overview of the topic, descriptive reviews of the scholarly literature on the ethical and legal issues surrounding conscientious objection, topical bibliographies, current updates from news sources, search strategies for finding more information, and links to related resources.

A bibliography that includes all references in this guide as well as more recent items is available as a Zotero library is available. Jere Odell edits this guide with assistance from Rahul Abhyankar, Amber Malcolm, Avril Rua, and the IU Conscience Project. This work received support from the Carnegie-Whitney Grant (2012-2013) of the American Library Association.