Abortion Opponents Undercut Council of Europe Resolution on Conscientious Objection

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(PRESS RELEASE) Today, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) undercut a resolution intended to regulate the use of conscientious objection by reproductive healthcare providers. The resolution did not pass as proposed and its provisions were severely diluted by a number of harmful anti-abortion amendments.

"It is truly a dismal day in Europe when the lives and health of women take a back seat to political agendas and ideological imperatives," said Christina Zampas, regional manager and senior legal adviser for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Today's disappointing vote shows the growing political power of the anti-choice movement among both governments and civil society, as well as a lack of political commitment to women's reproductive health by ostensibly pro-choice politicians."

The resolution would have offered the first set of comprehensive guidelines from a regional or international body on how governments must balance a woman's right to reproductive health and autonomy with an individual's right to conscientious objection. In many member states of the Council of Europe, the practice of conscientious objection in the medical field is largely unregulated. As a result, healthcare providers deny women access to lawful reproductive health services based on moral or religious objections—severely impacting their health and lives. The PACE resolution as originally proposed recommended that governments develop comprehensive regulations and guarantee the right to conscientious objection only to individuals, not to public health facilities. They also recommended that public facilities provide patients with information on all of their medical options and treatment in cases of emergency regardless of an individual practitioner's objections.

"When a healthcare worker objects to providing legal reproductive services because of his or her conscience, it is imperative to a woman's health and life that the government make sure that she can still get the services she needs and is legally entitled," said Zampas, whose expertise helped draft a report presented to PACE on the unregulated use of conscientious objection.

In a number of European countries, including Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Croatia, there are laws requiring doctors to inform patients of any conscientious objection to a procedure and refer the patients to another provider, but there is no oversight mechanism. For example, the Center is currently working closely with the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning and the Warsaw University Law Clinic on a lawsuit against Poland in the European Court of Human Rights for the death of a woman who was refused treatment for colon disease because doctors feared it would harm the fetus. Edyta* was two months pregnant when she was diagnosed with the painful colon disease which was aggravated by her pregnancy. When she sought medical care in her Polish hometown and other cities, however, doctor after doctor refused to treat her illness because she was pregnant. They repeatedly expressed concern about the fetus, but none of them formally raised a moral or religious objection so they did not have to refer Edyta to a doctor that would treat her. Edyta's symptoms grew worse until she miscarried and eventually, died. The lawsuit aims to ensure that Poland maintains enough healthcare workers who are willing to provide all legal health services and that patients get timely referrals. The suit also asks the court to prohibit hospitals and other institutions from invoking conscientious objection or using it to deny patients information or emergency care.

*The name used is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the family.