Research Handbook on Law and Religion
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Research Handbook on Law and Religion

Edited by Rex Ahdar

Offering an interdisciplinary, international and philosophical perspective, this comprehensive Research Handbook explores both perennial and recent legal issues that concern the modern state and its interaction with religious communities and individuals.
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Chapter 18: The legal recognition of freedom of conscience as conscientious objection: familiar problems and new lessons

Ian Leigh


This chapter examines the recognition of freedom of conscience in international human law. Through the progressive recognition of the right of conscientious objection to military service, international tribunals have grappled with questions regarding the treatment of beliefs about the sanctity of life and of countervailing societal interests. By contrast, the recognition of conscience of medical personnel relating to healthcare decisions, such as provision of abortion or contraception, is at an earlier stage of development, with a number of important unresolved questions. These concern whether conscience is better protected as a freestanding right or a subset of religion and belief, questions of complicity and the proximity of conscience and action, whether the right is absolute or limited, and whether public or professional duty and conscience are mutually exclusive. The way that they are determined will be a significant marker of the limits of equality, tolerance and dissent in liberal societies.

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