Without hindrance or fear of reprisals: The attitudes and experiences of doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion in New South Wales and Victoria

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (College of Law)

Schools and Centres


First Supervisor

Iain Benson

Second Supervisor

Keith Thompson


This thesis explores the phenomena of conscience from the perspective of doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion. Its focus is a novel empirical study on the attitudes and experiences of 35 doctors who self-identify as having a conscientious objection to abortion and who practice in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia. Findings include the reasons for their objection and the types of actions they refuse to perform, whether and how the law has limited the free expression of their beliefs in the workplace, and what they would change to achieve a more reasonable accommodation of their conscientious objection in medicine.

Of central importance is the finding of insufficient education on conscience for doctors and medical students. Whilst this is of general importance to society, it is, a fortiori, important for Catholic educational and health institutions, as well as those educational and health institutions committed to an alternative ethos.

This thesis also explores the natural law’s understanding of conscience, as enhanced by the teachings of the Catholic Church. It explains how a doctor who subscribes to this understanding of conscience can be harmed by performing or participating in the act of abortion when it goes against their conscience. It considers to what extent human rights law and Australian domestic law recognises and protects freedom of conscience for health professionals with regards to abortion, and how the right to life, the right to health, and the notion of public health have developed over time to become acceptable reasons to limit a doctor’s freedom of conscience.

This thesis performs fundamental legal research which uses social science methods to assist lawyers and policy makers to understand the relationship between laws that permit access to abortion whilst at the same time respecting a doctor’s freedom to disagree with the state about whether abortion is standard healthcare and to decline to perform or participate in it. Its empirical study fills a gap in the available research and builds upon research performed by others regarding the attitudes of obstetricians, gynaecologists and general practitioners to abortion and conscience protection, and the experiences of women trying to access abortion.

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