Pro-life medics 'forced' to abort

June 13, 2003

Medical school policy must be reviewed amid evidence that students with religious objections to abortion are being coerced into taking part in terminations, the British Medical Association heard last week.

The BMA's conference of medical academic representatives passed a motion that called on the heads of medical schools to review their practice so no student with a conscientious objection to abortion should be obliged to participate in or witness the procedure.

Ian Jessiman, an officer of the Guild of Catholic Doctors who proposed the motion, believes everyone should have the right to opt out of participating in abortion procedures .

He told The THES that students in his area had felt they "had been coerced into performing abortions". But Dr Jessiman said: "Abstention (from abortions) doesn't apply to medical students according to law."

An investigation by The THES has shown that medical schools across the country are facing a range of problems reconciling the religious beliefs of students with training requirements and patient feelings.

The accepted rule is that medical students should learn about abortions without actually carrying out terminations themselves. But it is up to individual medical schools to decide how students should cover procedures such as abortion as part of their training.

Margaret Lloyd, the chair of professional development at the Royal Free and University College London Medical School, said abortion was not a core subject.

Dr Jafer Qureshi, a Muslim member of the executive committee of the Medical Ethics Alliance, said: "It is vitally important for both theory and exams that you witness and understand abortion."

A number of universities have also encountered problems with Muslim women student who wish to wear burkas. The University of Southampton School of Medicine recently had to negotiate with a Muslim student who wanted to wear a headdress that masked her face.

Chris Stephens, director of teaching at the school, said: "She agreed that going on a children's ward and dealing with elderly people might be difficult as they might be uncomfortable talking to someone with her face covered."

Sabrina Jalil, a Muslim in her fourth year of studying medicine at Sheffield University, did not feel her religion was an obstacle.

She wears a headscarf and covers her body, but chooses not to hide her face. "Personally, I wouldn't wear a face cover as it is unfair on patients. They are not used to it so they wouldn't be able to relax," she said.

King's College London school of medicine had to talk round a female Muslim student who did not wish to examine male genitalia.

The dean of the school, Gwyn Williams, told The THES : "The line is you can't be a safe doctor if you don't know how to examine a man's testicles."

Another university, which asked not to be named, has had "a big problem" with Muslim parents coming to the faculty office without the student's knowledge, demanding information about the technicalities of the course from male members of staff.


Beata Klepacka, a final-year medical student at Cambridge University, found that much of her obstetrics and gynaecology attachment conflicted with her Roman Catholic beliefs.

She told one of the doctors organising the attachment that she would not be happy observing an abortion. She said: "It would have been emotional torture."

Ms Klepacka would have liked more open discussion about her decision. She said: "The message was - if you are against abortion it's baggage from childhood or your education so far that you should drop." She is also ethically opposed to fertility treatment and contraception. "If there is anything I object to I would ask to leave," she said.

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