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Open Access Research article

Conscientious objection to referrals for abortion: pragmatic solution or threat to women’s rights?

Eva M Kibsgaard Nordberg1, Helge Skirbekk23 and Morten Magelssen1*

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Medical Ethics, Institute of Health and Society, University of Oslo, Pb. 1130 Blindern, N-0318 Oslo, Norway

2 Norwegian Advisory Unit for Learning and Mastery in Health, Oslo University Hospital, Oslo, Norway

3 Department of Behavioural Sciences in Medicine, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

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BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:15  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-15

Published: 26 February 2014



Conscientious objection has spurred impassioned debate in many Western countries. Some Norwegian general practitioners (GPs) refuse to refer for abortion. Little is know about how the GPs carry out their refusals in practice, how they perceive their refusal to fit with their role as professionals, and how refusals impact patients. Empirical data can inform subsequent normative analysis.


Qualitative research interviews were conducted with seven GPs, all Christians. Transcripts were analysed using systematic text condensation.


Informants displayed a marked ambivalence towards their own refusal practices. Five main topics emerged in the interviews: 1) carrying out conscientious objection in practice, 2) justification for conscientious objection, 3) challenges when relating to colleagues, 4) ambivalence and consistency, 5) effects on the doctor-patient relationship.


Norwegian GP conscientious objectors were given to consider both pros and cons when evaluating their refusal practices. They had settled on a practical compromise, the precise form of which would vary, and which was deemed an acceptable middle way between competing interests.

Abortion; Conscientious objection; General practitioner; Patient rights