Freedom of conscience rights in a nutshell


  • Freedom of conscience rights, sometimes referred to as “conscientious objection”, is mandated by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (NZBORA).
  • A person may wish to conscientiously object on the grounds of religion, ethics, or professional judgement.
  • Even though the word “referral” is not used in Clause 6 of the End of Life Choice Bill, the requirement to “tell the person of their right to ask the SCENZ Group for the name and contact details of a replacement medical practitioner” can be regarded a form of referral and a form of participation in the assisted dying process.

  • A helpful analogy: A patient has been diagnosed with a viral infection, but requests antibiotics from a doctor. The doctor knows that antibiotics will not kill viruses. They know the over-use of antibiotics helps to create superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics. Should the doctor give the patient antibiotics simply because they asked for it? No. A doctor is allowed to exercise their professional judgement and freedom of conscience rights and refuse to prescribe antibiotics.Now imagine there were a law requiring that if a patient requests antibiotics and the doctor doesn’t want to prescribe it, the doctor has to tell the patient where they could request it instead. Doctors would be up in arms about this. By referring the person to another source of antibiotics services, the doctor would still be steering the patient towards antibiotics, against their professional judgement.So it is in the case of assisted dying. By telling the patient where they can request assisted dying, the doctor would still be steering the patient towards assisted dying, against their professional judgement and against their conscience. Referral is still a form of participation towards ending life.
  • If there’s any obligation to participate in any way, there’s no true freedom of conscience rights.
  • There are doctors who feel so strongly opposed to Clause 6 that they threaten to resign from the medical profession or leave New Zealand, exacerbating the shortage of doctors.
  • The current Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 requires a doctor to make an effective referral to another doctor. However, the refusal to do so is not an offence under the Act. Doctors can refuse to refer on the grounds of conscience without adverse consequences.
  • The SCENZ Group could take responsibility for making information available to the public. There’s no need to involve people who object on the grounds of conscience.
  • It’s in society’s best interests to allow and encourage doctors to act according to their consciences, as vulnerable patients may be harmed by an erosion of their consciences.