Conscience in Community

Many of you will be aware of the battle for liberty of conscience in medicine both here and overseas – the latter particularly in USA where President Obama is threatening to overturn Liberty of Conscience legislation protecting health workers.

Here of course it has been most evident in Victoria with the legislation last year forcing doctors to refer for abortion against their conscience. This is currently being fought.

Abortion law under challenge Jill Stark The Age March 8, 2009

THE federal Attorney-General is under increasing pressure from within his own party to use his powers to overturn Victoria’s new abortion laws, which leading lawyers and Catholic hospitals say are in breach of international law.

Queen’s Counsel Neil Young, a former Federal Court judge, and barrister Peter Willis, a former adviser to the attorney-general’s office, who examined the legislation on behalf of Catholic Health Australia, say that Australia will fail to meet its international obligations unless the clause is removed.

Catholic Health chief executive Martin Laverty told The Sunday Age that the group had been advised the contentious clause breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty ratified by Australia and overseen by the United Nations.

Under the Australian constitution, the Commonwealth has the power to invalidate state law if it breaches international treaties to which Australia is a party.

There will also be a conference in Melbourne in July on Liberty of Conscience at which yours truly will be a speaker (please pray for me as it will be very confrontational).

At another level as part of a move to bring some uniformity to Medical Boards across Australia the Australian Medical Council produced a draft Code of Professional Conduct (Aug 08) in which there was no protection for liberty of conscience. This has been rectified to an extent in the second draft (Apr 09) but we (Medicine With Morality) have still had to make (more) submissions to improve it – will keep you posted!

I want you to understand how serious this battle is for the future of medicine and for medical care in our society and for conscience and integrity in our world. The risk for medicine is that patient “rights” and government demands will overrule conscience and integrity in medicine. But medical care must never be subject to degradation by governments in this age or any age to come. The risk for our world is that individual and minority “rights” will overrule conscience and integrity in community including faith-based organizations.

It is for this reason that Medicine With Morality will also be making a submission to the Human Rights Commission re any bills of rights (due 15 June).Below is an excerpt from a possible submission (yet to be confirmed by members).

Doctor’s liberty of conscience

Our concern with this relates to the demands by consumer groups for “patient rights” with a focus on “medical services” rather than traditional patient care. It seems that sometimes “rights” can extinguish liberties and in this case our concern is that liberty of conscience in practice will suffer. Having such rights entrenched in legislation poses a great risk to the future of medical practice.

The exercise of conscience in medicine is everything. It underlies every aspect of good medical practice, to make good patient care our first concern and to practice medicine safely and effectively. It is the foundation of trust, integrity, truthfulness, dependability, compassion and confidentiality. The exercise of conscience encourages self-awareness and self-reflection.

It is conscience that must compel doctors to refuse to participate in treatments they believe to be un-ethical or that they consider not to be in the best interests of patients. To do otherwise would undermine the very foundation of good medicine.

The liberty to not be involved or complicit in matters considered to be unethical or inadvisable – to have liberty of conscience in medicine – is critical for individual doctors and for the integrity and independence of the medical profession as a whole.

Liberty of conscience is also consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom… to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

It is noteworthy that 95% of “faith-based” doctors in USA have now said they will leave medicine if forced to violate their conscience.

Imagine a society where integrity and conscience are slowly destroyed. The end results are terrifying.

Lachlan Dunjey. 22 May 2009.

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