European Court of Human Rights upholds the right to freedom of conscience The Court’s decision may have significant implications for conscientious objection to abortion by medical professionals
STRASBOURG – On 15 September the European Court of Human Rights ruled on the case of Papavasilakis v. Greece which upheld the right of individuals to raise a conscientious objection to military service. The Court ruled in favour of Leonidas Papavasilakis, a 27 year old Greek man who was refused permission to opt out of compulsory military service in Greece. The Greek authorities had the option to permit Mr Papavasilakis to complete his national service in a civilian setting, however they denied him this option and rejected his conscientious objection to serving in the military as baseless.
The Strasbourg Court held that there was a violation of his right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This ruling is in line with previous judgments concerning conscientious objection to military service, where the reasoning adopted by the Court could readily be applied to other cases where medical professionals object to participation in abortion or euthanasia procedures on the basis of a conscientious objection to the taking of human life.
“The European Court of Human Rights has used this opportunity to affirm the right to freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience is an important protection that the individual has against being compelled to engage in actions which they find morally reprehensible by the state”, said Robert Clarke, Director of European Advocacy for ADF International which intervened in this case as a third party.
Freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right guaranteed by every major human rights treaty
“Freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right guaranteed by every major human rights treaty. The ruling in the case of Papavasilakis v. Greece is not only important for cases concerning military service, but has implications for individuals in other fields who are forced to behave in a manner which offends their deeply held convictions. Nobody should be forced to choose between their conscience and their profession.”
A robust new framework for the protection of freedom of conscience
ADF International intervened in this case to assist the Court in developing a legal test to assess claims made under the freedom of conscience provisions in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. ADF International invited the Court to consider three elements in evaluating any claim invoking Article 9; first, the conflict between conscience and obligation needs to be serious. Second, the belief relied on must be sincere and profound, and be expressed in good faith. The third element is to examine whether the claim has a moral dimension for the individual in question.
“Citizens’ deeply held convictions should be reasonably accommodated by the state”, said Lorcán Price, Legal Counsel for ADF International. “The Court’s decisions involving conscientious objection to military service offers significant hope to those in other fields who are asked to act in a manner which conflicts with their profoundly held beliefs. There are a series of ongoing cases concerning the rights of nurses, doctors and midwives in the United Kingdom, Poland, and Sweden, among others, to conscientiously object to participation in the intentional taking of human life. It is our hope that the Court will adopt a consistent approach in its reasoning and afford medical professionals the same protections.”