A question of conscience

Some older Americans may
remember a lugubrious Hollywood melodrama set in Melbourne about a
nuclear holocaust. Everyone dies, mostly from suicide. It certainly
left its mark on Ava Gardner, the leading lady. “On The Beach is a story about the end of the world,” she told the press, “and
Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.” This is a remark
often quoted in Australia, though mostly in Sydney.

But at the moment, for
some Melburnians, it seems about right. A bill has sailed through the
lower house of the parliament of the state of Victoria which removes
abortion from the criminal code and allows unrestricted abortion up
to 24 weeks. If the doctor secures the approval of a colleague, he
can do an abortion up to the time of birth.

The bill still hasn’t
passed the upper house, where it will face stiff opposition. But it
could succeed. The state Premier says, without any irony, that Victorians will know by Christmas.

One of the most objectionable features of this legislation is that it effectively
removes doctors’ right to conscientious objection. It requires
doctors-who-won't to refer women to doctors-who-will. Furthermore,
"in an emergency where the abortion is necessary to preserve the
life of the pregnant woman”, the doctor must perform it.

Of course, the
legalisation of abortion is the core of the bill. That is awful
enough. But denying freedom of conscience in so a transcendental
matter as taking a human life has its own importance. And those who
crafted the bill were ruthless in ensuring that there would be no
escape. Objecting doctors will have to conform or face the

Surely conscientious
objection is a basic human right? For most things, in Victoria, it
is. But not for abortion. Two years ago the state adopted a “Charter
of Human Rights and Responsibilities” which guaranteed its citizens
"freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief".
However, it also specified that "nothing in this Charter affects
any law applicable to abortion or child destruction".

What I found baffling is
that Victorian MPs cared so little about conscientious objection.
Australia is supposed to be a democracy. How could they be pro-choice about abortion but anti-choice about conscience?

Fortunately, Lesley
Cannold enlightened me. Ms Cannold is a well-known figure around the
traps in Melbourne, as a bioethicist, journalist and president of
Pro-Choice Vic. In a scathing opinion piece in the Melbourne
Age, she denounced pro-life doctors who
are more concerned about protecting their
right to impose their values on women than observing their obligation to help them.

As I read on, I
suddenly grasped why Ms Cannold was having conniptions. It is because
she has redefined freedom of conscience to make it mean something different
from what it has meant for 2500 years. "The right to act
according to the dictates of our conscience is founded in the value
of autonomy,” she says. “Autonomy means self-rule. An autonomous
person is one who is free to direct her life according to her own

In short, Ms Cannold is a
relativist. The content of the values she describes is utterly
personal, making it impossible to test them in a rational debate.
Hence, her kind of conscience makes arbitrary, even capricious,
choices. It is just a whim, like choosing between Colgate and Ipana,
or painting your bathroom Autumn Peach or Twilight Rose, or ordering
mango or chocolate chip ice cream.

The traditional view of
conscience is quite different. Only a malfunctioning conscience is
capricious. A well-oiled conscience makes its choices based on
reason and evidence, not on whimsy. Doctors who object to abortion,
for instance, regard it as obeying the principle of "first do no
harm", especially to the sick and vulnerable. They defend their
view with abundant medical, sociological and psychological evidence.
They are not imposing their values; they are choosing a
rationally-justifiable good.

Even the Greeks, long
before Christianity, saw conscience as rational act. In the classic
argument for obedience to a higher law, Antigone, in Sophocles's
play, defies the king's commands. “I did not think your edicts
strong enough / To overrule the unwritten unalterable laws,” she
states. She dies rather than disobey her conscience. I can't imagine
Cannold and the Victorian MPs who voted for this bill dying for their
conscience. It makes no sense to be martyred for choosing your
favourite ice cream.

So, in Cannold's scheme of
things, if values are relative and conscience is irrational, then
there is no point in debating about the truth. What matters is seizing the levers of power
to impose your own values as fast as possible. In other words, to establish a
dictatorship of relativism. And that's exactly what pro-choice
activists are hoping to do in Victoria.

I suspect that this brutal
battering of freedom of conscience is part and parcel of the
pro-choice ideology. Abortion is hard to justify with facts. It
clearly is the taking of an innocent human life. To deny that, your
will has to hogtie your capacity for reasoning things out. No wonder abortion was removed from freedom of expression in the Charter of Rights -- because it is rationally indefensible. Its only shield against inquiry and criticism is power. So that's
the secret of why Victorian MPs don't give a toss about their constituents'
freedom of conscience. If you accept abortion, you probably don't
believe in truth. And if you don't believe in truth, you won't think
conscientious objection is worth the hassle.



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