The General Medical Council (GMC) has updated its guidelines for doctors, including its rules on personal beliefs and medical practice. However, the new rules are problematic in that they allow doctors to conscientiously object to providing certain types of treatment, such as access to contraception. They also allow the religious beliefs of parents to take precedence when doctors are making decisions about the medical treatment of children. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has criticised the new guidelines.
In the updated guidelines, the GMC does say that doctors must not impose their personal beliefs on patients. However, this advice is contradicted by other statements in the guidelines, which enable doctors to conscientiously object to providing certain medical services. Under the terms of the new guidance, doctors who have religious objections to the provision of certain types of treatment are advised to make their objections known in advance. This suggests that the GMC is placing the responsibility on patients to find out their doctor’s personal views before seeking treatment. However, this is difficult in cases of urgent care, such the prescription of emergency contraception. This makes it inevitable that some patients will be denied treatment because of the religious beliefs of a doctor.
The guidelines also state that when both parents of a child hold religious beliefs which conflict with what the medical profession considers to be the most appropriate form of treatment for the child’s medical condition, then other treatment options (which might be less effective) should be considered instead.
Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented ‘These new guidelines are disappointing, because they do not go far enough in laying down the principle that medical services should be delivered without discrimination based on religion, and in a way which puts the patient’s medical interests first. Patients should be able to expect that their doctor will base treatment decisions on what is in their best medical interests, not on religious beliefs. Doctors should also not acquiesce in the imposition of parents’ religious beliefs on children, who have yet to form their own beliefs. When administering medical treatment, the autonomy of the individual patient (whether a child or an adult) must be respected at all times. This means that doctors should not be allowed to impose their religious views.’
For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0773 843 5059.
General Medical Council – Personal beliefs and medical practice:
The Secular Medical Forum – SMF response to updated GMC guidance 2013:
Previous BHA news article – General Medical Council drafts new guidelines on conscientious objection and the prescription of contraceptives:
The BHA’s campaign on conscientious objection:
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.