On conscientious objection to abortion: Questioning mandatory referral as compromise in the international human rights framework






Zoe L. Tonge


This article explores the approach of international human rights bodies to conscientious objection to abortion, by requiring states to implement mandatory referral mechanisms where conscientious objection is permitted. This, however, represents an inadequate compromise position as many objecting healthcare professionals also object to referral and circumvent those requirements. Furthermore, referral cannot address the broader issues with the overuse and misuse of conscientious objection provisions which obstructs access to abortion services. After considering the harms caused by conscientious objection and suggestions for alternative regulatory responses, this article proposes that the international human rights framework should aim to strike a contextual balance between freedom of conscience and ensuring access to abortion. This new approach should place clearer obligations on states to properly regulate conscientious objection, including obligations to address socio-cultural stereotypes around motherhood and the foetus, which result in widespread conscientious objection.