Elephant in the Room Part II: And It Happens In Italy

and I am deeply disgusted with my country.

Many of you will be familiar by now with the story of Savita, who died of sepsis in Ireland when she was miscarrying and medical staff refused to cure her due to the fact that they could still detect a foetal heartbeat. Her death understandably sparked worldwide outrage and a national debate, centered around the fact that it is still, to this day, illegal to obtain an abortion in Ireland.

Despite also being a predominantly Catholic country, Italy legalized abortion back in the 1970s. For the first three months, a woman can seek an abortion for whichever reason, and she can get the procedure done in a state hospital. After three months, abortion is legal for medical reasons. While on its face the law provides Italian women with more reproductive rights than in Ireland, it is not true that Catholicism has not left its mark upon it.

Italian law allows for doctors to be obiettori di coscienza, or conscientious objectors. This means that no doctor in Italy is forced to perform abortions contrary to their religious or moral beliefs. While most Italian states require doctors to register as conscientious objectors, thereby making sure that there is at least one doctor per hospital who will perform abortions, this regulation is not very well enforced and women in more conservative parts of the country can find themselves falling through the cracks.

The results, of course, are predictable.

Four days ago, a 32 year old woman in Sicily died after 17 days of hospitalization when she miscarried twins. Her family members claim that her doctor refused to complete the abortion of the twins because he could detect the foetal heartbeat.

Here’s the problem: the doctor was not registered as a conscientious objector. In any case, the hospital claims that even if he was a conscientious objector, he would still be required by law to have completed the abortion due to the gravity of the situation. The hospital director told the press:

“Io escludo – aggiunge Pellicanò – che un medico possa aver detto quello che sostengono i familiari della povera ragazza morta, che non voleva operare perché obiettore di coscienza. Se così fosse, ma io lo escludo, sarebbe gravissimo, ripeto perché il caso era grave. Purtroppo – conclude il direttore generale dell’ospedale Cannizzaro – nel caso di Valentina è intervenuta uno choc settico e in 12 ore la situazione è precipitata”.

Translation: “I exclude – Pellicanò added – that a doctor could have said what the family of the poor dead girl claim, that he didn’t want to operate because of a conscientious objection. If that was the case, but I exclude it, it would be very serious, I repeat because the case was so serious. Unfortunately – the director of the Cannizzaro hospital concludes – in Valentina’s case a septic shock happened and in 12 hours the situation precipitated”.

I don’t know why her family would claim that the doctor refused to operate on her if he hadn’t. I also find it fishy that she was hospitalized for 17 days before she died, a time frame which does not coincide with the director’s story of a precipitating, devastating septic shock which became irreversible and deadly after 12 hours. In either case, after the claims made by the family, an autopsy will be performed as part of a manslaughter investigation against the doctor in question.

I’m sure that the investigation will reveal more details into this case. However, regardless of how this turns out, I find myself staring down another giant elephant in the room that no one seems to want to mention.

There should be no such thing as conscientious objection in a medical setting.

As a doctor, you have to be able to do your job and uphold your Hippocratic oath. Your first duty is to those you treat, not to yourself. That is the profession you chose, and that is the responsibility that you took upon yourself. If there is a part of that job that you cannot perform, you don’t get to have that job, especially given the fact that your job involves the life, health and well-being of others.

If you don’t want to perform abortions, there are plenty of fields of medicine that you can go into in which you will never be asked to do so. Become a urologist, or a psychiatrist, or a pediatrician. I cannot believe that we are still having this conversation, because somehow we are so used to allowing Catholics do whatever they want to women that we lose sight of the terrible precedent it sets. It would be ludicrous to allow a Jehovah’s Witness to be an ER nurse and claim conscientious objection to blood transfusions, because people could die if he or she wastes time putzing about looking for someone else to do it for them. And yet when it comes to women’s health, we still allow Catholic hospitals to exist and to have emergency rooms, all the while denying women necessary procedures, or giving them unnecessarily invasive ones, because of their asinine morality.

When your job is to care for others, you should never be allowed to let your own religious moral code to influence your ability to do your job. You do not get to impose your morality onto others. You can get another job, you can find another specialization, but conscientious objection in the medical field should be banned, by law, everywhere.


  1. Siobhan says

    You can get another job, you can find another specialization, but conscientious objection in the medical field should be banned, by law, everywhere.

    For the sake of your blood pressure, ignore my upcoming series on the extensive abuses of Catholic so-called conscientious objection in Canada.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Maybe I should skip it, but let’s face it, I wont!
      I’m curious to see it actually, because the conscientious objection thing in Italy is a double problem. There is the conscientious objection in Catholic hospitals, obviously, but then there is ALSO the allowing of doctors who work in state hospitals, i.e. the ones that are funded by the national health service, to be conscientious objectors. As Canada also has universal health care, do you know if doctors working in public hospitals are also allowed to be conscientious objectors, or is it only for Catholic hospitals?
      I feel like, if they banned conscientious objectors from state hospitals, and made Catholic hospitals put a giant neon sign above them clearly labeling them as such, and/or banned Catholic hospitals from having emergency rooms, the problem would get better. It wouldn’t fix it, but it would be an intermediate step that I could live with on the way to getting a full ban.

  2. Jake Harban says

    I’m still baffled by the idea of: “My religion forbids me from doing this job, therefore you have an obligation to pay me to not do it.”

  3. says

    Religious organizations have been taking over hospitals all over the world. Now, tell me that this is not exactly their strategy.

    Clearly, it’s not about providing better medicine, because they could do that just by spending the money. It’s about controlling medicine.

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