The next moral quagmire: Conscience


Dr. David Stevens worries Barack Obama is about to end his medical career.

Dr. David Stevens

As a family practitioner and a devout Christian, the Tennessee doctor has been able to cite an existing conscience protection for health workers to avoid doing anything that clashes with his beliefs. But with Mr. Obama looking at rolling back these conscience protections, Dr. Stevens says he isn't sure if he would go on practising medicine.

"If it happens, I would have to scale back my practice or quit," said Dr. Stevens, head of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.

"This is important to me because I'm a professional; I professed how I was going to use the powerful knowledge I got in medical school. I wasn't going to do abortions.... I was always going to preserve life.

"What does the free exercise of religion mean if I cannot follow my conscience? It becomes meaningless if you try to privatize beliefs where they have no bearing on action."

This is a battle being played out in different ways across North America, as dissenting voices like those of Dr. Stevens reflect what happens when the legal rights of society bump up against personal conscience.

There have always been such voices of dissent -- Catholics in Protestant England, Jehovah's Witnesses in Catholic Quebec, conscripted soldiers who refuse to go to war -- but as our society becomes increasingly rights-focused, is there less tolerance for acts of conscience?

Just consider: On Canadian university campuses antiabortion groups are successfully being shut down by students unions.

In Ontario, the licensing body for the province's doctors attempted to strip away the right of physicians to refuse abortion referral and other procedures that go against their conscience.

Last year, an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal forced a conservative religious charitable group, which cares for thousands of severely disabled individuals, to pay damages to a gay employee who violated the group's morals clause.

Pharmacists with strong religious beliefs have lost their jobs for refusing to bend their conscience. At one pharmacy in Calgary, Cristina Alarcon, a Catholic, was told she was trying to impose her morality on others and she was eventually let go. After moving on to a new place of work, a colleague said it was best to follow her example and leave her religion at the door. "I could not and would not follow her example, as my peace of mind and unity of life were more important to me than my job or even my life itself," Ms. Alarcon said.

That is also the stance of religious health-care workers in the United States, like Dr. Stevens, who fear that without the existing regulations, they would no longer be able to opt out of abortions or sterilization procedures or other things that go against their religious or moral convictions.

Opponents of the conscience regulation say existing civil rights laws already provide ample protection against discrimination based on religion and argue that stripping the regulations will bolster health-care rights for all.

On the other side, there is now a growing chorus of voices warning that the suppression of dissent is eroding the very underpinnings of a free society.

"The reason we protect conscience is not because everyone agrees with everyone all the time but because it's massively damaging to the body politic when the state is put into opposition with people's closely held religious beliefs or conscientious beliefs," said Eric Rassbach, national litigation director for the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.


He thinks many Canadians and Americans suffer from short memory or a lack of basic history.

"What does the free exercise of religion mean if I cannot follow my conscience? It becomes meaningless if you try to privatize beliefs where they have no bearing on action."

"Why did so many religious minorities flee Europe to come to North America? It was because their consciences were being violated and they were being persecuted for what they believed to be true. We don't ask if [those fleeing Europe] had an accurate viewpoint. We don't ask if it made sense for the Pilgrims to think as they did.... We just say it was bad they were being persecuted because they had these beliefs in England and isn't it great they could come over here and live out their lives in relative peace."

Iain Benson, the director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, an Ottawa-based think tank focused on religion and public policy, said dominant groups have always attempted to shut down dissenting opinion in the name of protecting societal norms and rights. In another age, it was religion that played the oppressive role, dictating aspects of law, politics and public education.

"The form it takes now, in an age dominated by post-religious viewpoints, is a kind of 'atheistic theocracy' that poses just as real a threat to divergent beliefs as the old kinds of theocracy," Mr. Benson said.

"The courts have long said one of the key aspects about freedom of expression is that it protects 'the search for truth.' This is important because only by keeping alive a vibrant open society that allows debate and differences can citizens keep alive certain kinds of disagreements.... On controversial matters, however, those who seek one-size-fits-all will oppose genuine diversity."

Canadian author and ethicist Margaret Somerville, who has been banned on some campuses for her stand against gay marriage, said one of the classic strategies used to quiet dissenters is narrowing every debate to two answers, with no room for nuance or shades of grey.

"I'm anti-discrimination against gays but anti same-sex marriage, but that position is not allowed to be considered," she said. "You can only be pro gay rights and pro gay marriage or the opposite on both."

"Speaking against abortion or same-sex marriage is characterized as a sexist act or discriminatory act against homosexuals, therefore a breach of human rights or even a hate crime. This is a new form of fundamentalism."

"A moral stance, a conscience stance, I see as being constitutive of a human person just as much as my ethnic background or gender. My conscience is who I am at a different level," she said. "I am not allowed to be discriminated against because I'm a Catholic and a woman. Then why is my conscience -- which is not an add-on -- why is that not protected?"

Mr. Rassbach notes that the right of conscientious objection has long been a tradition in the United States and is generally respected, even in the military, as long it can be proven to be sincere.

"So, on one hand, people will agree with that because they'll say it's all right to be pacifist about things, but then when someone says, 'I don't participate in a particular procedure, be it abortion, or providing certain kinds of contraception,' then suddenly they're being moralistic and there's a problem there."

His group, the Becket Fund, takes on all sorts of cases in which religious liberty is being violated. He notes the case of an orthodox Jew who was in prison in Texas and wanted kosher food. The prison system refused. The Becket Fund took up his case and helped the prisoner get a diet that did not offend his religious beliefs.

"That's a conscience issue, too," said Mr. Rassbach. "Most people could understand that is doesn't make any sense to force someone to eat something they think is defiling them from a religious point of view. It is the same thing for those opposed to abortion and contraception."


People who have exercised their conscience through history are often admired in the long run. While it may seem a stretch, Martin Luther, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Joan of Arc were all considered irritants to the public good. But they were admired because even their enemies had to give a grudging respect for their being true to themselves -- and paying the price.

"Conscience is the most sacred part about us," Moira Mc-Queen, a Catholic moral theologian in Toronto. "And that's why it's given this respect, as long as it's informed."

Lawyer Alan Borovoy, head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, believes conscience should generally be protected when it is possible.

"If there's an overriding societal interest ... and there's a conflict, there may be an argument for overriding the conscience right, but only to the extent it's necessary for that overriding interest. The test is: Is there a reasonable alternative to what is being proposed to the encroachment of conscience."

By way of analogy, he described the case of a Toronto police officer who opposed abortion and so did not want to stand guard outside the Morgentaler abortion clinic.

"I took the position that cops can't pick and choose whose rights they protect and whose rights they don't. But in Toronto, with so many police officers, it shouldn't have been difficult for another officer to do that duty. But that might not be the same answer if it had been a small town.

"I went to bat for that cop even as I simultaneously articulated the principle that his first duty was to provide that protection."

Ms. McQueen said the problem today is that people often think of conscience as something additional to their personality.

"A moral stance, a conscience stance, I see as being constitutive of a human person just as much as my ethnic background or gender. My conscience is who I am at a different level," she said. "I am not allowed to be discriminated against because I'm a Catholic and a woman. Then why is my conscience -- which is not an add-on -- why is that not protected?"

That is exactly the point of Ms. Alarcon, the Calgary pharmacist, who raised the ire of customers and colleagues alike for refusing to fill prescriptions for morning-after pills, or even making a referral for the drug, because that would be "co-operation with evil."

"I'm not saying to the person, you can't have it, I'm saying you can't have it from me," she said. "No one should be denied the ability to live a unity of life, whereby we say what we mean and we mean what we say, and we live with integrity and not as fragmented individuals. Denial of freedom of conscience is the beginning of the end of a mature democracy. [Without it] we would all become like robots."


Right of Conscience A Serious Issue




Charles Lewis. "The next moral quagmire: Conscience." National Post, (Canada) 4 April, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Charles Lewis writes for the National Post.

Copyright © 2009 National Post

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