Submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Freedom of Conscience in Abortion Provision

But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  [1 Peter 3:16].

Pray for us.  We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honourably in every way.  [Hebrews 13:18].

This Parliamentary Inquiry called for online responses to eight questions, some of which were not always directly answerable.  The following is the gist, rather than the actual format, of the submission made on behalf of Affinity.

'The terms of reference of the Inquiry are:
To assess the extent to which the Conscience Clause provides adequate protection for doctors who do not wish to participate, directly or indirectly, in the provision of abortions;
To assess the extent to which the Conscience Clause provides adequate protection for other health professionals who do not wish to participate, directly or indirectly, in the provision of abortions;
To examine how freedom of conscience in the law and professional guidance can be developed for healthcare professionals going forward.'

'Section 4 of the Abortion Act (1967) requires that ‘no person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection’.  Commonly known as the ‘Conscience Clause’, the purpose of this section of the 1967 legislation was to enable men and women with conscientious objections to abortion to remain fully engaged in providing healthcare without being compelled to participate in the provision of abortion.'

Affinity is a fellowship of churches, evangelical agencies and individual Christians.  We represent some 1,200 churches and several thousand people throughout the UK.  Within Affinity a Social Issues Team (SIT) deals with ‘citizenship’ issues such as bioethics, education, law and politics.  This submission is from that Team.

While many Affinity supporters are employed as doctors and healthcare professionals, this present submission is general in its content.  It is expected that individual Affinity supporters will respond to the Inquiry and detail their own personal experiences.  Affinity wishes to uphold the principle and practice for all medical staff to withdraw from participation, both direct and indirect, in the provision of abortion, on the grounds of conscientious objection.

The issue of conscience is at the very heart of what makes us human – it separates us from mere animals.  Our conscience guides us in formulating what is right and what is wrong.  While there is a clear collective conscience in some key activities – for example, positively, you should love your neighbour and negatively, you should not murder – it is more debatable in other activities – for example, positively, you should obey the speed limit and negatively, you should not covet.

Thus, there is a range of human activities upon which there is not a general consensus.  Hence, there is a need for freedom of conscience provision as a mark of any democratic and decent society
one man’s fish is another man’s poison and so forth.  While equality and diversity are marks of such good societies, the absolutism of either is bad.  Diversity of thought and action, as long as they are legal, are societal strengths to be preserved and encouraged.

When coming to the issue of abortion, it is obvious that people think and act very differently.  Some, in all good conscience, regard abortion as a benefit, whereas others regards it as an evil.  How to reconcile both groups?  How to coexist without trampling over the moral sensitivities of some?  The answer is ‘reasonable accommodation’.  And this was the motive behind the framers of Section 4 of the 1967 Abortion Act.  Yes, abortion could be legal, but no, not everyone had to be involved.  It was a compromise, but a workable compromise.

And so over the years, doctors and nurses and healthcare workers have been allowed to exercise their freedom of conscience and been able to exempt themselves from the thrust of the 1967 Act.  This was the default position pre-1967.

However, more recently, we have witnessed, in more and more areas of UK society, a growing tendency to force some aspects of equality at the expense of diversity.  Thus, free speech is under attack, freedom of thought is criticised, freedom of action is assailed, and so on.  Personal liberty, autonomy and freedom of conscience are becoming increasingly under threat.

Moreover, it is never right that people are forced to act against their conscience
that is the path to totalitarianism.  Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights recognises and safeguards against this.  To sweep away the protections of Section 4 will inevitably result in the exclusion of many of our best and most morally-sensitive and caring healthcare workers, Christian and otherwise.  It would have a huge negative impact on medical practice in the UK.

We are aware of the recent challenges to the scope of conscientious objection in abortion provision.  Cases such as those of the Glasgow midwives, legal rulings by Ladies Dorrian and Hale, guidelines from the General Medical Council, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association, and issues such as duty and onward referral, have served to conflict and obscure the extent and application of Section 4.

Affinity calls for clarification and ‘reasonable accommodation’ to protect the consciences and rights of all healthcare professionals.  Affinity calls for measures to prohibit any coercive action to compel men and women to participate in abortion provision against their consciences.  The protections of Section 4 were enacted by Parliament, now Parliament should ensure that they are upheld and not misinterpreted or abused.
Dr John R. Ling.
11 July 2016.