April 17, 2024

The confusing rights of conscience

Hi there,

One of the issues to which we often return in BioEdge is the rights of conscience. It seems to be wheeled out for all sorts of jobs. On the one hand, conscience is viewed as the lodestar of an honourable man, as in Martin Luther King Jr’s influential “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – which was written almost exactly 50 years ago, in April 1963.

On the other hand, conscience is dismissed as an excuse for mollycoddling intransigent eccentrics. Standing for this point of view we have Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu. He wrote a few years ago in the BMJ, “When the duty is a true duty, conscientious objection is wrong and immoral. When there is a grave duty, it should be illegal. A doctors’ conscience has little place in the delivery of modern medical care.”

This week I noticed two women politicians invoking conscience, but in very different ways and with very different outcomes.

The Pennsylvania Attorney-General, Kathleen Kane, has refused to defend the local Defense of Marriage Act against a challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. She indicated that it was against her conscience and to support it would be unethical. Constitutionally, she is within her rights, apparently, however surprising her decision may seem to most voters. However, the move may well boost her popularity, as she apparently aspires to be the state governor or a Federal senator.

In Ireland, on the other hand, an up-and-coming minister in the government, Lucinda Creighton, refused to support her own party’s abortion bill. As a result, she has been expelled from the parliamentary party, the Fine Gael, and has lost her position as a minister. She was philosophical about the loss of her job. Following her conscience was more important.  

The two cases are not quite analogous, of course. But the contrast is vivid enough to provoke some reflection. One politician invokes her conscience and burnishes her career. Another invokes her conscience and ruins it. One is applauded for breaking, if not the law, at least long-standing convention. The other becomes a political pariah for honouring long-standing conventions.

Did they have the same thing in mind when they invoked their consciences? It’s a conundrum, but more and more of such cases seem to be cropping up. We need to clarify what the rights of conscience are.


Michael Cook
Kathleen Kane versus Lucinda Creighton