Catholic bishops call on Government to respect conscientious objection on abortion

Doctors and pharmacists should not be obliged to refer patients to others, they say

The Catholic bishops have called on the Government to respect conscientious objection among healthcare professionals when it comes to the provision of abortion services in Ireland.

In a statement on Friday they said they appealed to the Government, and wider society, to respect the right of healthcare professionals and pharmacists to exercise conscientious objection “not only by refusing to participate actively in abortion but also by declining to refer their patients to others for abortion”.

Healthcare workers should not face legal, professional or financial penalties or any form of discrimination for their commitment to “respect life”, they said.

The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018, currently before the Oireachtas, "poses a very real practical and moral dilemma for healthcare professionals who believe in the fundamental human right to life and in their own responsibility to serve life," they said.


“In this context our concern for pharmacists, and separately for doctors, nurses and midwives, is as follows: ‘The draft legislation envisages that, in the first 12 weeks, abortion generally will be drug induced.

“This presumes that pharmacists, whether in hospitals or in private practice, will routinely stock and dispense drugs whose specific purpose is to end human life. No provision is made for pharmacists to opt out on the grounds of conscientious objection.”

The draft legislation provides for doctors and nurses to opt out of providing abortion, but requires them to refer the patient to a colleague who will perform the procedure. “This requirement may have the appearance of respecting freedom of conscience but, in reality, it requires a healthcare professional to cooperate in what he or she sincerely believes is doing harm to one patient and taking the life of another,” according to the bishops.

In New Zealand, they pointed out, healthcare professionals 'opt in' to the provision of abortion if they so wish. In the case of conscientious objection, however, they are not obliged to refer their patients to others for abortion.

“We believe that the Government, by following this approach, could demonstrate respect for the freedom of conscience of healthcare professionals. We ask politicians, whatever their position on the termination of pregnancy, to work towards this.”

The bishops noted that "fundamental right to freedom of conscience is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Conscience is that private space in the heart of every person in which the truth is discovered and accepted.

“For men and women of faith, conscience is the reflection in their own heart of the voice of God, supported by faith and reason. To strip a person of the right to freedom of conscience is to undermine his or her fundamental dignity as a person.”

The bishops conclude their statement by saying that “at this challenging time, we encourage all Catholics to pray for healthcare professionals and to pray for politicians that they, and we too, may have the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do what is right.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times