Equality Bill must preserve right to conscientious objection, doctors insist

Fourteen medical associations representing various medical specialties are insisting that the upcoming Equality Bill should guarantee their right to conscientious objection, endorsing a proposal put forward by the Medical Council.

The associations insisted that doctors should not be faced with clinical situations where they are forced to act against their ethical convictions, or deemed liable should they exert their freedom of conscience.

“Medical practice requires a holistic understanding of the medical sciences, but also a sound knowledge of how to apply these in everyday life. As with all sciences, medical practice involves a degree of ethical judgement, such as making end of life decisions, deciding on the urgency of treatment provision or the optimal utilisation of limited resources for patient care,” they maintained.

“These circumstances require sound clinical and ethical judgement, based on the values of the medical profession, which include the value of life, justice, respect for others and equality”

Thus they insist that in ethically-contentious scenarios, doctors should be allowed to refuse to prescribe treatment or perform procedures that violate their ethical convictions, even if such interventions are deemed legal.

The associations said that the proposed clause also safeguarded the interests of patients, by obliging the Health Department to disseminate all relevant information, thus ensuring patients would not face the unnecessary time and expense of being transferred from one professional to another

They emphasised that a set of guidelines would ensure that conscientious objection is not abused, by restricting it to specific circumstances and allowing for its judicious use.

But they lamented that efforts at introducing the concept of conscientious objection in the bill have been rejected over the past few months, and that this was particularly concerning in light of the supremacy clauses the bill includes.

“These allow the bill to override other criminal and civil laws if a matter of legal contention arises. In practice, if conscientious objection is introduced in future laws, a healthcare worker could still be liable, since the Equality Bill would take legal precedence. It should be emphasised that this bill will impact not only doctors but all healthcare workers.,” they said.

The reluctance to introduce a conscientious objection clause, they concluded, “runs the risk of introducing discrimination in a bill that specifically sought to eradicate it in the first place.”

The statement was endorsed by the following associations:

  • Association of Anaesthesiologists of Malta
  • Association of Emergency Physicians of Malta
  • Association of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgeons of Malta
  • Association of Physicians of Malta
  • Association of Private Family Doctors
  • Association of Surgeons of Malta
  • Geriatric Medicine Society of Malta
  • Malta Association of Ophthalmologists
  • Malta Association of Otorhinolaryngologists and Head and Neck Surgeons
  • Malta College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
  • Malta College of Pathologists
  • Maltese Association of Dermatology and Venereology
  • Maltese Association of Radiologists and Nuclear Medicine Physicians
  • Maltese Paediatric Association