In this Month’s JME

I have to admit that I’m a bit suspicious of empirical work in ethics: my general instinct is to be less interested in what people actually think or do or want than in what they ought to think or do or want.  But it’s also true that empirical work can confirm or cast doubt on predictions about how a moral claim or policy is received or implemented – it has a role to play in assessing “pure” – or “armchair”, if you prefer – ethics.  It can help us survey the ethical landscape.  And, every now and then, it can reveal something that makes you go wow.

Rosie Steele’s paper in this latest JME is one of those.  It compares attitudes to abortion among medical students in Northern Ireland and Norway, and there’s some incredible results.  Of cultural interest is the number of students in either case who profess a religious belief.  Now, that Norn Iron should have more people describing themselves as religious than Norway isn’t entirely a surprise: anyone who’s even half awake has probably noticed that religion plays a bigger part in everyday life in Ulster than in most other places.  But it’s nevertheless a surprise to see just how big the difference is: almost half of the Oslo students claimed no religious affliliation, while only 5% of those in Belfast made a similar claim.

That abortions are much harder to get in Northern Ireland than in Norway doubtless goes some way to explain the finding that “students at [Oslo] were much more likely to have seen an abortion during their training than those at [Belfast]” – there’re fewer to see, I’d guess.  Nevertheless,

[h]alf of the students at [Belfast] would be unwilling to watch an abortion. However, the [Belfast] students stated that abortion had not been adequately covered during their medical school teaching.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons.  One has to do with the question of willingness, and what difference that makes.  Granted that it’s hard to force students to observe a given procedure, there’s still an interesting question to be asked about the scope of the right to opt out.  Would it be permissible to say, “You want to be a medic; this is a medical procedure; your private conscience cannot hold the curriculum hostage”, or should there be an opt-out for students who don’t want to learn about things?  (Or to practice them, for that matter…)  After all, it’s possible that at some stage in a doctor’s career there’ll be cause to perform an abortion – possibly in an emergency situation, for example – and it doesn’t seem too wild to suppose that at least a basic idea of what goes where is the sort of thing that we might expect.  I do wonder how students expect to be better taught about abortion if they’re unwilling to observe one, too – although that musing is tempered by the thought that, perhaps, if there was better or more teaching about the procedure they’d be more willing at least to observe it in practice.

Steele’s paper concludes:

This study demonstrates considerable differences in attitudes between medical students at [Oslo] and [Belfast], with 78.2% of the [Oslo] students being pro-abortion versus only 14.3% of the [Belfast] students. The majority of participants from [Oslo] were in favour of abortion for all scenarios relating to the mother and fetus. Students at [Belfast] seemed to agree more readily with abortion when they did not perceive the situation to be the woman’s responsibility—for example, when there is a threat to her life or health or she has been a raped. For less serious conditions relating to mother and fetus, the [Belfast] students were less likely to be in favour of abortion. These differences probably reflect the differing religious, legal and educational experiences of the two groups of students.

The nice thing about a blog is that I can speculate without having to produce too much evidence – and so I’ll end by responding to that conclusion with one word: Probably?

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