The Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill is scheduled for Committee Stage in the House of Lords this Friday, and I have been watching its progress with interest. The Bill’s sponsor is Baroness Nuala O’Loan – a widely respected legal mind in the Lords who served as first Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland, and is a former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Inquiry. Among those who spoke in favour of the Bill at Second Reading were the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and senior Conservative Peers Lord Elton, Baroness Eaton and the renowned surgeon, Lord McColl of Dulwich.
Conscientious objection was first provided for in the UK in 1757. In the last century, we accommodated 76,000 conscientious objectors during the two world wars. Freedom of conscience appears in every major human rights treaty, and freedom of belief is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, alongside gender, age and disability. Reasonable accommodation of conscientious objection is therefore a long-respected matter of liberty and equality in this country, and this respect should be as relevant today as ever.
Yet recent interpretations of law and practice – see for example Greater Glasgow Health Board v Doogan – mean that Baroness O’Loan’s Bill is both timely and welcome, seeking as it does to clarify and affirm that, as a matter of law, no-one with a conscientious objection should be compelled to be involved in activities which they believe involve the taking of human life, such as the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment.