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Conscience as agent-integrity : a defence of conscience-based exemptions in the health care context

Neal, Mary and Fovargue, Sara (2016) Conscience as agent-integrity : a defence of conscience-based exemptions in the health care context. Medical Law Review, 24 (4). pp. 544-570. ISSN 0967-0742

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The issue of conscientious refusal by health care practitioners continues to attract attention from academics, and was the subject of a recent UK Supreme Court decision. Activism aimed at changing abortion law and the decision to devolve governance of abortion law to the Scottish Parliament both raise the prospect of altered provision for conscience in domestic law. In this article, building on earlier work, we argue that conscience is fundamentally connected to moral integrity and essential to the proper functioning of moral agency. We examine recent attempts to undermine the view of conscience as a matter of integrity and argue that these have been unsuccessful. With our view of conscience as a prerequisite for moral integrity and agency established and defended, we then take issue with the ‘incompatibility thesis’ (the claim that protection for conscience is incompatible with the professional obligations of healthcare practitioners). We reject each of the alternative premises on which the incompatibility thesis might rest, and challenge the assumption of a public/private divide which is entailed by all versions of the thesis. Finally, we raise concerns about the apparent blindness of the thesis to issues of power and privilege, and conclude that conscience merits robust protection.