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Conscientious objection lawful treatment and professionalism


Conscientious objection, lawful treatment, and professionalism:

The importance of liminality

Dr Mary Neal
The Law School, University of Strathclyde

1800, Tuesday the 12th of June, 2018.


Certain actions – which would be criminal if performed by anyone else – are lawful if performed by a health professional in the course of providing ‘proper medical treatment’. As used by judges and academics, the term ‘proper medical treatment’ has tended to be given an all-or-nothing status. In this paper, however, I will argue that we ought to see proper medical treatment as a spectrum, containing different categories. One such category comprises treatment which, while lawful , is nevertheless at the margins of ‘properness.’ I call this ‘liminally-proper treatment(LPT) [.pdf]. After describing the spectrum of proper medical treatment,  and the category of LPT within it, I will explain how I think this perspective can help clarify the proper scope of conscientious objection (CO) in healthcare. Specifically, I will argue that CO ought to be permitted only in relation to this narrow category of practices. I will also argue that the idea of LPT can help illuminate other areas of controversy in relation to CO, for example debates about ‘reasonableness’ and about the (in)compatibility of CO with professionalism.


Dr Mary Neal is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. In 2014-15, she was Adviser to the Scottish Parliamentary Committee scrutinising the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, and she is a current member of the British Medical Association’s Medical Ethics Committee. Dr Neal is currently leading two funded projects relevant to the issue of conscientious objection in healthcare. One is a British Academy/ Leverhulme-funded project exploring conflicts between personal values and professional expectations in pharmacy practice. The other is a multi-disciplinary network of academics and healthcare professionals (the ‘Accommodating Conscience Research Network’, or ‘ACoRN’), funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.