Fr Vincent Twomey: 'Doctors of conscience must exercise civil disobedience if told to carry out abortions'
Conscience as a subject has been rumbling in the background to the various major controversies over the past decade or more. The proposed legislation on abortion has brought it to the foreground, albeit under the guise of the somewhat misleading term "conscientious objection", a term that originated in the refusal of Quakers to engage in military operations on religious grounds.
The term is misleading, since conscience, when we listen to it, prompts us as to how we should act - what is right or wrong - and not just what we object to doing because of subjective convictions, religious, ideological or otherwise.
Conscience itself has become a somewhat ambiguous term. Both sides in the last referendum justified their option by appealing to their conscience, as though conscience could be equated with one's subjective preference: Yes or No. This reflects the dominant cultural assumption that denies the reality of any such thing as objective right or wrong. Despite this cultural assumption, the legal parameters of society are predicated on an older and more profound assumption, namely the recognition that certain actions are always objectively wrong, such as rape, adultery, theft, perjury or paedophilia.
Since these acts are evil - even when not the subject of legislation, as in the case of adultery - the question arises: why? Most will reply they are self-evidently wrong. Any normal person in any relatively healthy society at any time in history would, or should, instinctively recognise such actions as wrong, and so forbidden. To quote the Anglican lay theologian CS Lewis: "There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world." In other words, we have a more or less developed moral sense. That is what is meant by conscience in its primordial sense.
There is a subjective dimension to conscience. It is etymologically related to the terms "conscious" and "conscientious".
The Oxford Dictionary defines the original notion of conscience as: "The internal recognition of the moral quality of one's motives and actions; the faculty or principle which pronounces upon the moral quality of one's actions or motives, approving the right and condemning the wrong."
What is the origin of that instinctual capacity to know what is right and wrong? Since rational instinct transcends cultures and societies, it can only have one origin: God, the transcendent source of all goodness. He has implanted in our hearts an antenna for truth, goodness and beauty.
But if you deny God, then, as JP Sartre logically concluded, you end up by denying the existence of an objective moral order. As a result, might triumphs over right. Our residual consciousness of what is objectively right and wrong can become clouded by either the habitual failure to act upon what one knows is right and wrong or by cultural forces such as ignorance, ideology or popular opinion whipped up by emotion. In practice, this means one or other individual must stand up for the truth - like Sgt Maurice McCabe. They pay a heavy price for so acting. But on their courageous stance depends the health of society - and the survival of democracy.
Since the experience of internal German resistance to National Socialism was most evident in those areas where there was a living faith, Adenauer insisted after World War II that God be mentioned in the very first line of the new constitution. As a result, the German constitution affirms the primacy of conscience above the allegiance of legislators to their party.
Having ridden roughshod over the primacy of conscience in legislating for limited abortion in 2013, Fine Gael did not impose the whip for the last referendum.
Fianna Fáil members demanded a free vote. That was real progress. Some political parties such as Sinn Féin did impose the whip, thereby demonstrating their democratic deficit. As others have argued, the over-use of the whip is undermining parliamentary democracy. It is an obstacle to real debate. It reduces the opposition to impotent histrionics and, worse still, forces the governing party members to rubber-stamp Government proposals despite their moral principles.
The proposed legislation for abortion includes a clause on "conscientious objection" according to which doctors whose conscience forbids them to kill a child in the womb at any stage of its development are obliged to refer the woman seeking abortion to another doctor, thereby co-operating in the abortion. This is repugnant to the meaning of conscience. It imposes a legal obligation that contradicts the moral obligation not to aid or abet evil. Apart from the doctor, other medical, pharmacy and ancillary hospital staff cannot be forced to co-operate in an abortion.
Their conscience must be respected.
Should the Government go ahead with the proposed legislation, then all medical and ancillary staff must exercise civil disobedience. In parliament, legislators must vote according to their conscience - not according to the party whip.
On this freedom of conscience depends the survival of our fragile democracy. On receiving the Nobel Prize, Seán MacBride, founding member of Amnesty International, affirmed that: "To the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights one more might, with relevance, be added. It is 'The Right to Refuse to Kill'" - and, one could add, the right not to be forced to vote for, or otherwise co-operate in, such killing.