In the wake of increasing government pressure for vaccination, and in particular of recent vaccine mandates for health and aged care workers, it is prudent to take pause and consider what is at stake.
We all understand how important it is that we do everything reasonable to minimise the risk of people catching COVID-19. In this context, encouraging and prioritising vaccination of healthcare professionals makes complete sense.
However, we have been told from day one of this pandemic that vaccination will not be compulsory. Yet now we are being told that in an increasing number of settings it will be, and those who do not agree to get vaccinated will face negative actions, including potentially the loss of their livelihoods.
Consider, for example, the highly skilled ER nurse, who after years of training and then working in an ER, will now be prohibited from doing so because of their decision not to get vaccinated. Even should that person be able to be redeployed to a new (presumably non-front-line) role, their professional loss is significant. In a worst-case scenario (for example, a contract employee) they may even lose their job.
This is a high price to pay for one's conscience - a price that has been imposed by the state.
Coercion and obligation threaten some of the most dearly held principles of liberal Western society: the presumption of informed consent and the dignity of conscience. In light of these threats, the Australian Catholic Medical Association in Australia has written to the Prime Minister and state leaders asking them to safeguard these principles, "to respect and protect freedom of conscience and legitimacy of conscientious objection regarding mandated vaccinations".
For Catholics, and indeed many people of good will, conscience is not simply a deeply held opinion, but a sanctuary, a place of encounter, where God's voice echoes within one's depths. It is a voice which urges us to do what is right and good, and guides us in judgment of particular acts.
The dignity of conscience also requires that one is free to follow its dictates. This demands that society should respect and make room for rational and sincere judgments of conscience. One should not be restricted from enacting the dictates of conscience through unjust laws, or forced or coerced to act contrary to conscience.
Within the context of vaccination, the deliberation of conscience will involve moral questions of the vaccine's production, an informed assessment of the possible side effects, a personal risk/benefit assessment, as well as the important consideration of one's obligation to society and the promotion of the common good.
In the situation where one's conscience decides against vaccination, this obligation to the common good remains. Thus one must consider how best to reduce or mitigate the risk of infection, and put appropriate protocols in place.
But, as noted, it also falls to society to respect this choice, and not force people to act contrary to it. Religious freedom in Australia is protected by both section 116 of the constitution as well as the common law, and it is our view that medical professionals wishing to abstain from COVID-19 vaccination in view of their Catholic beliefs should not be discriminated against - in any way - for doing so.
Just as it falls on the individual conscientious objector to take alternative measures to reduce the risk of infection, so too society must make accommodation for those of conscientious objection. As put to the Prime Minister and premiers, in the field of healthcare such accommodation could include the addition of safeguards and risk-mitigation strategies around those staff with conscientious objections. As healthcare professionals we all want to work in a safe working environment, but it is possible to achieve this without a policy of forced vaccination.
For example, regular rapid antigen testing would both respect the dignity of conscience and ensure a safe environment for both staff and patients, particularly the vulnerable.
It is critical that those working in healthcare clearly understand the importance of conscience and act according to its dictates regarding vaccination. It is also essential that we create a society in which no one is coerced to act contrary to their conscience.
The Catholic Medical Association of Australia, solicitous of the rights and dignity of its members and all people of conscience, and following Catholic teaching, calls for respect for the legitimacy of conscientious objection to vaccination, and urges protection against coercion and unjust sanctions for those who sincerely choose that path.
- The Reverend Dr Paschal Corby is a bioethical adviser at Catholic Medical Association of Australia.