Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72(1) February 2022


Conscientious Objection and the right to refuse treatments need to be upheld

Dr Adrian Treloar

Photo of authorConscientious Objection is not only a right. It is also a duty for grave matters such as abortion, which involve an act which is intrinsically evil UK law states clearly that health care workers have a right to refuse to participate.

That right was emphasized by Pope Francis recently [1] when he addressed Pharmacists in Rome. He said “Health workers have a non­negotiable right to conscientious objection if they are asked to participate in an abortion,” At other times Pope Francis has talked of a duty to object. Indeed as Pope Francis said in 2014, “To play with life is a sin against the Creator,” and doctors must make the “brave choice,” even up to the point of civil disobedience, never to commit abortion or euthanasia, Pope Francis said in an address on Saturday 15th November 2014. “There is no human life more sacred than another: all human life is sacred!” [2] Conscientious Objection is a serious duty, of which we need reminding.

The Vaccines and Foetal Cells

As discussed elsewhere in this issue, the Church has said that accepting Covid and Rubella Vaccines (based as they are on foetal cells) is not illicit. But despite that, some people (of all walks in life but also including healthcare workers) find the notion of accepting an injection of a substance which has been developed or manufactured using foetal cell lines so repugnant and so contrary to the value they hold for unborn life that they cannot bear it.

Even though that goes beyond repeated Papal teachings from St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, those views must be respected. Each person has a conscience and each person’s conscience must be respected. Mandatory Vaccination without provision for Conscientious Objection demonstrably overrides the duties and rights of Conscientious Objection.

The vaccines and consent

Every person has the right to consent to treatment and to refuse treatment for any reason and no reason. To deny that right is therefore a grave matter and is not allowed except in clear circumstances such as severe mental incapacity and mental illness. Mandatory Vaccination appears to deny the right to refuse treatment. Health Care Workers face penury for them and their families if they refuse. Care homes have seen severe staff shortages as a result of mandatory vaccination and some have had to close. Both the UK policy for NHS staff and the Italian policy of mandatory Vaccination for all over 50 years old severely undermine the necessary principles of consent to treatment.

The evidence for vaccines

In the end, if governments want to persuade people to take vaccines then they need do that by persuading people that they are safe, effective and necessary. When issues such as foetal cell lines are involved, they should also support the development of vaccines not based on foetal cell lines.

But if they cannot persuade people to take the vaccine, then Governments need to accept they have lost. Vaccine uptake among healthcare workers in this country is high. Population uptake is above 90%. The Government and Department of Health have done extraordinarily well to get 137 million doses of vaccine into 68 million people in just 12 months.

But doubts remain, and some, for various reasons, passionately refuse the vaccines. If neither the ev­idence base nor the Government can persuade them, it is wrong to force them. Concerns about the vaccines and whether or not it is right to impose mandatory vaccination upon Healthcare Workers are set out in more detail on pages 8 and 11 of this journal [3,4].

Defending Conscience and consent

Now is the time to remind ourselves of the duties of conscientious objection and also the fundamental right to refuse treatments for any reason and no reason. Even in the middle of a ghastly pandemic we must defend the rights and duties of Conscientious Objection which are gravely threatened.


  1. Pope Francis talks to Pharmacists and insists on right to conscientious objection for heath-care workers over abortion. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72 (1) February 2022 Page 11
  2. Pope Francis to doctors: Never commit abortions or euthanasia, even if that means civil disobedience. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 65(1) February 2015.
  3. Treloar A (2022) Vaccination Mandatory for Health Care Workers. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72 (1) February 2022. Pages 8-11.
  4. Berry J (2022) A Pragmatic and Philosophical discussion of vaccine mandates and the wider issues of Covid-19 and the Church. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72 (1) February 2022