The Medical Council recently issued a statement appealing to the government to include a conscientious objection clause in the equality bill making its passage through parliament.
As Malta’s sole legally recognised institution providing regulation to medical and allied professionals, the weight of this recommendation comes at a critical juncture in the larger discussion around issues of sexual and reproductive rights in the Maltese islands.
Addressing the mounting debate on the proposed equality bill, European Commissioner Helena Dalli recently stated: “Calls by some quarters for a provision for conscientious objection to be introduced in the bills concern me as if this were to be included, I know exactly who will be impacted the worst: women accessing SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) services such as contraception or IVF treatments and LGBTI+ people in general.”
Protecting the human rights of minorities through progressive legislation was one of the finer moments of the previous administration, although voices in Malta’s LGBT community have called into question whether their legitimate needs were being manipulated to provide a smokescreen for the alleged illicit activity being conducted by government figures at the time.
A variety of like-minded organisations have joined the Medical Council to voice their concerns about the bill and its repercussions across society.
These include the Medical Association of Malta, the Maltese Catholic Bishops Conference, the Malta Employers’ Association, the Association of Catholic Church Schools and the Association of Independent Schools, alongside a number of other entities and groups.
In the case of medical professionals, conscientious objection would mean that doctors and others could opt out of providing a medical service on the grounds of serious moral objection. On the other hand, if enough doctors object to certain treatments there is a legitimate concern, as raised by Dalli, that some patients will have difficulty accessing them.
There are certainly no easy answers when it comes to how (or indeed, if) conscientious objection fits into the agenda for sexual and reproductive rights currently being pursued.
Another objection that has been raised to the equality bill as drafted is how its provisions would affect schools that place the transmission of religious values at the forefront of their mission and see the hiring of educators who adhere to similar values as crucial to the fulfilment of that mission. The new law, it is argued, would restrict the schools’ freedom to do so.
This can also be viewed as a serious encroachment upon parents’ right to choose the moral values they would like to impart to their children via their education, so long as no laws of the land are broken.
There is a strong argument that it is not discriminatory to favour qualities in the prospective employee that are fundamental to carrying out the job as legitimately described by the employer.
The arguments put forward against the bill as it stands can be seen as revolving around the moral integrity that patients expect from their doctors and the moral underpinnings that some parents want to see in their children’s educators.
Being truthful to their moral convictions is a cornerstone of what makes our doctors and teachers a source of trust at a time of increasing misinformation and of mistrust in the authorities.
Any society that values a rich diversity of perspectives, rather than the monolithic preaching of special interests, must permit for multiple views to coexist in the public sphere.
The ambivalence of political authorities towards listening to large numbers of professionals, declaring their ethical perspectives, is alarming.