Fr Vincent Twomey: Why abortion bill is a prime example of moral weakness
AS German philosopher, Josef Pieper, pointed out, "abuse of language is abuse of power". It is not without significance that the term "abortion" is not to be found in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which is currently before the Oireachtas.
A separate article would be needed to study how the framers of the bill have used language – most obviously in the title of the bill itself – not to clarify but to obfuscate, and so legislate for direct abortion without even using the term. The tortuous language used to define "unborn" to avoid the use of the word "child" is a case in point.
The aim of this article is, however, more limited: it is to consider the question of conscience as it is addressed in the bill, although the demands of conscience also arise in connection with how our legislators vote on the proposed measure.
The bill as initiated contains a section – section 17 – dealing with "conscientious objection". If enacted into law, it will have major consequences for medical personnel up and down the country. Why?
Conscience is a contentious subject. In the current debate, two quite contradictory notions of conscience have emerged. On the one hand, conscience is understood as a personal preference and so subjective ("what I feel is right or wrong"); and, on the other, conscience is our innate sense of right and wrong, which is in harmony with the wisdom traditions of humanity and presupposed by all the major world religions. The subjective notion of conscience is the dominant one in contemporary society, not only in Ireland. It is what pro-choice, in the final analysis, means. It is what makes "pro-choice" issues so emotionally persuasive.
It amounts to a claim to be free to do what I (emphasis on the I) think is right and wrong – with the corollary that no authority can impose its "values" on me, if I choose not to accept them. Moral issues thus become a matter of personal preference, and so can be left aside when dealing with issues of law or the State.
Objective conscience, on the other hand, accepts that morality is something that is objective, binding on all people, irrespective of their religious affiliation (or none). It assumes human actions can be objectively right or wrong, just or unjust, and can be judged so by a third party.
It is what makes the laws of the land binding on the conscience of the citizens, provided that those positive laws are in harmony with objective morality. (Subjective culpability, on the other hand, is determined by the degree to which we are truly responsible for our wrong actions.) In other words, objective morality assumes that my conscience has the capacity to recognise what I ought to do, whatever the cost.
Conscience, thus understood, demands moral courage. Sad to say, due to external pressures and moral weakness we often fail do what – in our heart of hearts – we know we ought to do. The erosion of the objective notion of conscience facilitates us in presenting an action (or inaction) that we know to be morally pusilanimous as one in accordance with our conception of morality.
This can, of course, be done publicly, to avoid the appearance of moral cowardice in the eyes of others, but is perhaps even more corrosive when we begin to believe that we are the true and final arbiters of what is right and wrong.
In a society where a subjective understanding of conscience and moral relativism prevails, opinion bolstered by emotion triumphs over truth. This seems to be the case with the way the proposed bill is being presented inside and outside the Oireachtas.
The proposed bill does not mention conscience but a related notion: "Conscientious objection" (section 17). One might expect that this would connote an entitlement to do as one's conscience demands, but the entitlement to make an objection is much more constrained.
According to the bill, except in emergency cases, when the right to object is completely suspended, there is no obligation on anyone who has a conscientious objection to carry out or assist in the carrying out of any medical procedure "as a result of which an unborn life is ended". Although the use of the passive voice ("is ended") suggests that the procedure concerned could be one in line with current medical practice, ie, one carried out to save a mother's life as a result of which a baby may unintentionally be killed, where objection based on conscience to participation in such a procedure does not come into play. So it will relate only to direct abortion, that is, the deliberate targeting of an unborn life with the intention of ending that life.
However, the bill provides that any medical practitioner who has a conscientious objection to participation in a direct abortion "shall make such arrangements for the transfer of care of the pregnant woman concerned as may be necessary to enable the woman to avail of the medical procedure concerned" (ie, direct abortion). The word "shall" in this context is imperative; there is no choice in the matter or room for further objection.
The result is that those medical practitioners who object to direct abortion on conscientious grounds will be obliged in law to refer the patient to other medical personnel who, to the objectors' knowledge, will perform the same (gravely immoral) "procedure".
THIS legal injunction offends against one very specific, universal moral perception which, in the academic discipline of ethics, has been articulated most clearly in the "principle of co-operation". Put simply, the principle of co-operation means that one should not knowingly co-operate in what will cause serious harm to another person that is foreseen and unavoidable.
The historical figure who most famously broke this principle was Pontius Pilate. It is not morally legitimate simply to wash our hands of the matter by passing it on to those who will do what we will not.
The bill, if enacted, will seek to compel medical personnel to participate in an act that they know to be gravely morally wrong. In this respect, the bill compounds the moral error of allowing for direct abortion by forbidding those who object to it from following to the full extent the demands of a properly informed conscience.
Fr Vincent Twomey is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at Maynooth