Conscientious Objection and Physician–Employees

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This article attempts to motivate a reorientation of ethical analysis of conscientious objection (CO) by physicians. First, it presents an illustrative case from a hospital emergency department for context. Then, it criticizes the standard pro- and anti-CO arguments. It proposes that the fault in standard approaches is to focus on the ethics of the physician’s behavior, and a better way forward on this issue is to ask how the party against whom the physician exercises the CO ought to respond. It connects this question with recent trends in physician employment models, which suggest that CO may become a potential source of conflict in the future. The article then develops a relational account of CO that extends James Childress’ insights about the nature of CO in “Appeals to Conscience” (1979). This relational account characterizes CO as a two-place relation between conscientious objector and expectant party, in which the conscientious objector makes a request of the expectant party, which has implications that will be welcome and unwelcome for both the pro- and anti-CO camps. Finally, the paper applies this relational account of CO to the case when the physician is an employee. This application demonstrates that it is highly context dependent whether or not an employer should accede to the CO requests of physician–employees.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)247-268
Number of pages22
JournalHEC Forum
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • Conscience
  • Conscientious objection
  • Employee
  • Physician


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