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Bill to protect conscience rights of medical professionals passes Second Reading

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Medical practitioners may have greater legal protection in the future for refusing to take part in medical procedures against their religious beliefs, following a debate in the House of Lords last week.

The Lords were debating the second reading of the Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill, which aims “to clarify the extent to which a medical practitioner with a conscientious objection may refrain from participating in certain medical activities”.

The Bill was introduced by Baroness O’Loan to address a growing concern that medical professionals are facing increasing discrimination in the workplace because of their beliefs.

GPs, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and other medical professionals with certain deeply-held moral, philosophical or religious views are finding that some areas of the healthcare profession are becoming increasingly inhospitable to them, say the Bill’s supporters.

“I believe this is a timely and important Bill that should attract support across both Houses. Reasonable accommodation of conscientious objection is a matter both of liberty and equality: of individual freedom and social inclusion,” said Baroness O’Loan, former Police Ombudsman and chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Inquiry.

“No one should be coerced by the risk to their careers into violating their conscience, and it is plainly inconsistent with the principles of equality legislation to exclude whole sections of society from areas of medical employment simply because of their moral beliefs. I hope this excites support from across the country that allows us to fix this deficit of legal rights and protections”.

The Bill seeks to introduce a statutory right to conscientious objection to the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, a legal right for medical practitioners to object to indirectly participating in abortion, and to provide employment protection from discrimination for those who seek to utilise conscientious objection provisions.

“No one should be forced to choose between their profession and faith. Recent reports from the UK have shown that not enough is being done to protect medical staff from being pressured into doing things that contradict their deepest beliefs – whether religious or not,” said Laurence Wilkinson, legal counsel for ADF International, a Vienna-based human rights organisation that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

“Freedom of conscience is protected as a fundamental human right under the European Convention on Human Rights. Once the State starts forcing people to act against their deepest convictions, we are no longer truly free. This Bill seeks to ensure that those with differing views are not shut out of the medical profession and able to serve as the compassionate, caring, and conscientious practitioners that they are,” he continued.

Following the debate, the Bill received its second reading without a vote. It now passes to the Committee stage, before its report stage and third reading; if it passes that it will be presented to the House of Commons.