Response to arguments against Conscientious Objection

In response to Savulescu and Schuklenk’s article “Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception.” 

In the article by Savulescu and Schuklenk entitled “Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception” in which the authors respond to Christopher Cowley’s previously published article which argued that we have ‘misunderstood the special nature of medicine, and have misunderstood the motivations of the conscientious objectors’ Savulescu and Schuklenk attempt to argue in favor of; 

(1) removing a right to conscientious objection; (2) selecting candidates into relevant medical specialities or general practice who do not have objections; (3) demonopolizing the provision of these services away from the medical profession. (abstract source:

However, there is a primary flaw in Savulescu and Schuklenk’s article, and indeed in their overall secular fundamentalism, that blinds the authors from the ability to adequately engage with Cowley’s initial argument.

Firstly, Savulescu and Schuklenk assume that there is a thing called “religion” and that this is different from any other “ism”. When in fact there is no stable or coherent definition of “religion” that differs from other “isms”(ie. Capitalism, Secularism). In saying, for example, that Ireland has certain ethical or medical practices because of religion (ie. regulations on abortion), is no different from saying another society has certain practices because of secularism or capitalism (ie. abortion on demand).

The fundamentalist secular ideology held by Savulescu and Schuklenk is visible all throughout. They attempt to argue that contraception is a “social good” in a world with a “sufficient population”. Reducing people to utilities, and imposing standards of living to quantify human beings and personhood. They do not question how “social goods” are determined, or how such “sufficient population” is measured.

The authors refer to “conscientious objection” as a problem. Not only do the authors assume that humanity is an end not a means, going against even ethicist Peter Singer, but they assume that acknowledging the personhood of person is a “problem”. 

What’s at core stake is that the secularism held by Savulescu and Schuklenk is a religion, albeit in disguise. The authors are particularly fundamentalist. They cannot engage with Cowley’s argument for the special nature of medicine, because they are blinded by whole secular assumptions about the person. They never question themselves, or how they in fact have arrived at their notions of “good”or “right” practices.

In conclusion, their article is an arbitrary construction, and the dangers with this is that secularism grew because it promised that it can negotiate more productively between differences than other religions. But Charles Taylor makes the point that aggressive secularism today acts as the complete opposite of this initial promise, in that rather than mediate between differences in the service of a pluralist society, it adopts an adversarial stance to ALL differences, and allows only room for itself. This is the form of secularism that will facilitate, and has facilitated, massive social and political unrest. This article by Savulescu and Schuklenk is representative of this aggressive attempt to annihilate all other religions and value systems.

The protection of a practitioner's conscientious objection to practice that which violates the doctor/patient relationship and the oath to do no harm protects not one specific religion or value system, but all value systems. Systems that are a part of each individual’s foundation, which cannot be stricken from them. It is erroneous to think otherwise, and our most influential ethicists, academics and philosophers recognize this central fact.


MaterCare International

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1. Savulescu, J. and Schuklenk, U. (2016), “Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception.” Bioethics. doi:10.1111/bioe.12288 

2. C. Cowley. A defence of conscientious objection in medicine: A reply to Schuklenk and Savulescu. Bioethics 2016; 30: 358–364, at 358.

3. Singer, Peter. (1993) Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge, pp. 175-217

4. Taylor, Charles (2007) A Secular Age, Harvard University Press