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Aborting conscientious objection

By Michael Cook - posted Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The older set 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 American 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 Sydney.

But at the moment, for some Melbournians, 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.

Some people may regard referring to another doctor as a trivial matter. After all, they say, you won’t be directly involved. But what would happen if a 14-year-old girl requested to be circumcised? Unlikely, perhaps, but possible in certain cultural settings. Would MPs force a conscientious objector to refer the girl to a colleague down the corridor who specialises in genital mutilation? I think not. I suspect that they would regard mandatory referral as an abhorrent violation of a doctor’s conscience.

Of course, the legalisation of abortion is the core of the bill. That is awful enough. But denying freedom of conscience in so transcendental a 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 consequences.

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” (PDF 252KB) 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" (Section 48).

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, Leslie 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 2,500 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 values.”

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.

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About the Author

Michael Cook edits the Internet magazine MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Other articles by this Author

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Related Links
Leslie Cannold - A conscience vote is meaningless unless it is a two-way street
Leslie Cannold - It really does matter who you are, and where you come from

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