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Should states dictate how your doctor treats you? Fort Worth conference to explore sticky ethical questions

In nearly every state, health providers can refuse to perform an abortion without facing legal consequences, regardless of whether abortion is legal where they practice. 

The opposite is not true. Texas, for example, bans most abortions. Providers who perform them anyway can face life in prison. 

The decision to perform or not perform an abortion when the state says otherwise is a “classic example” of conscientious objection in medicine, said Dr. Stuart Pickell, a physician and president of the Tarrant County Medical Society

And conscientious objection, or the refusal to carry out an action because of personal beliefs, raises sticky ethical questions, he said: What is conscience? What are its limits? 

Pickell and a cohort of community members, including health providers from multiple fields, will gather to discuss these questions at the annual Healthcare in a Civil Society conference on Feb. 25. Abortion isn’t the focus, he said, but a provider’s decision to pursue or not pursue any medical procedure based on conscience.

“At some point, there’s a blurring between medical decision-making and conscience,” he said. “This is what we’re exploring.”

If you go:

What: Healthcare in a Civil Society conference, organized by the Tarrant County Medical Society. The conference includes breakfast, a panel of experts and a keynote about the exercise of conscience in health care. 

When: 8 a.m.–1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 25

The University of North Texas Health Science Center
Medical Education & Training Building
1000 Montgomery St.
Fort Worth, TX 76107

Open to the public. Tickets cost $25 for people who want continuing education credit, $10 for everyone else. Full-time students pay $5. Register here.

The conference is organized by the Tarrant County Medical Society in collaboration with The University of North Texas Health Science Center. Although this year’s theme centers health providers, anyone who’s ever been a patient can benefit, Pickell said. 

“These are the people who are taking care of them,” he said. “Do they want their doctor to be making their decisions based on what the state is telling them to do, what their employer is telling them to do, or what (the doctor thinks) is best for the patient?”

The keynote speaker is Dr. Farr Curlin, a physician and professor at Duke University. Curlin is an “international expert” on conscientious objection in health care, Pickell said. 

After Curlin speaks, Pete Geren, president of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, will moderate a panel exploring the topic’s legal, psychological and educational consequences.

The panel comprises Maxine Harrington with Texas A&M University School of Law, Dr. Alan Podawiltz with JPS Health Network and Sylvia Trent-Adams with the Health Science Center.

Afterward, attendees will continue the conversation in small groups, followed by a second panel discussion in which they can ask questions of their own. 

The first conference, held in 2014, explored the Affordable Care Act. Recent topics include patient autonomy and the erosion of public trust in health care. Dozens of people attend each year, Pickell said. 

He hopes this year’s conference will help people think outside the box.

“We live in a society where the conversation has become increasingly dominated by soundbites regarding weighty issues that have considerably more nuance to them,” he said. “What we want to do is create a forum within which people can have a productive conversation.”

Disclosure: The Sid W. Richardson Foundation is a financial supporter of the Fort Worth Report. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at or via Twitter.

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