Conscience clauses in genetic counseling: Awareness and attitudes

Shea Bonine, Megan Bell, Kristen Fishler, Taylor Berninger, Lindsay Erickson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Conscience clauses are laws that allow healthcare providers to refuse to participate in legal medical services based on moral or ethical objections. Genetic counselors encounter a variety of ethical and moral issues, including counseling about abortions. Currently, three states (Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Virginia) have genetic counseling conscience clause laws that allow genetic counselors to refuse to counsel about abortions. Conscience clause laws applying to physicians and pharmacists have been studied; however, they have not been studied in genetic counseling to date. We conducted an exploratory study assessing conscience clause awareness, attitudes, perceived obligations if utilizing a conscience clause, and alignment with the National Society of Genetic Counseling (NSGC) Code of Ethics. Genetic counselors (n = 274) currently practicing in the United States completed an online survey recruited through the NSGC listserv. The majority of participants were not aware that conscience clauses exist for genetic counseling (90%). There was uncertainty about whether genetic counselors had the right to utilize a conscience clause in practice (24% said yes, 31% said no, and 45% were unsure/needed more information). The majority reported an obligation to refer a patient if implementing a conscience clause (90%), although there were discrepancies among what constitutes an appropriate referral. When asked about the interaction between conscience clauses and the NSGC Code of Ethics, 45% believe they are separate and one does not supersede the other, 31% felt the Code of Ethics supersedes, 8% felt conscience clauses supersede, and 16% were unsure. Our study shows overall uncertainty with how conscience clause laws may be applied in clinical practice. Further clarity and education, especially in states where these laws exist, is critical to navigate the interaction between conscience clause laws and genetic counseling practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1468-1479
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Genetic Counseling
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • abortion
  • attitudes
  • conscience clause
  • ethics
  • genetic counselors
  • policy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics(clinical)


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