May 2nd 2009

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor's 'people overboard' fiasco

EDITORIAL: Human rights consultation hijacked?

TRADE: Government pushes China free trade agreement

FIJI: Australia and NZ silent as China bankrolls military junta

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: From Baghdad to Beijing: Labor's dodgy dealings

TRADE UNIONS: WA unions host Cuban ambassador... Why?

ILLICIT DRUGS: Australia's $10 billion industry - organised crime

GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR: A desperate fight to the death

THAILAND: Land of smiles descends into turmoil

PRE-SCHOOL: Conscripting our toddlers for political activism

OPINION: Legislative assault on freedom of conscience

POLITICAL IDEAS: Crisis of credibility that has shaken the world

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Productive investment vs. financial speculation / Free speech curtailed for the sake of pluralism

Human rights hearings (letter)

Australia to import food? (letter)

Telstra (letter)

ETS to cost billions (letter)

CINEMA: Katyn - Sombre depiction of unpunished WW2 crime

BOOKS: REFUGEES AND REBELS: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia, by Jan Lingard

BOOKS: GIRLS LIKE YOU: Four Young Girls, Six Brothers and a Cultural Timebomb, by Paul Sheehan

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Legislative assault on freedom of conscience

by Paul Russell

News Weekly, May 2, 2009
Victorian MPs last year passed new abortion laws which deprived medical professionals of any recourse to conscience, while these same MPs themselves enjoyed exercising the right of a conscience vote, writes Paul Russell.

In his book The Common Man, G.K. Chesterton described the practice of philosophy as simply "thought that has been thought out". He went on to say that, although philosophy is "often a great bore ... Man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out".

In many, if not all, of the recent ethical debates, local and international, on what we could broadly term "life issues", one could be forgiven for raising the accusation that the majority of legislators simply had not "thought out" their ideas.

It may seem to be sour grapes on my part to say so. In my defence, I offer as exhibit A the recent state and federal parliamentary debates on human cloning or, indeed, on Victoria's Abortion Law Reform Bill 2008.

I am not suggesting for a moment that those legislators who supported such bills lacked the ability to think or were derelict in their duties. But I can't help but think that their thoughts, such as they were, were not thought out well enough; that they failed to dig deep enough for the immutable truths that demand consideration. A less charitable interpretation of their behaviour would have it that at least some among their number had a political agenda.

How else could we understand Victorian legislators' moves, under that state's new abortion regime, to deprive medical professionals of any recourse to conscience?

Thinking of those MPs who ditched these conscience clauses, what conceivable thought process prompted them to adopt such a breathtakingly senseless arrangement?

It is one thing to accept a false conclusion drawn from a false premise, but entirely another thing to dismiss an individual's right to conscientious objection (enshrined in international covenants) in the context of a debate in which all MPs themselves enjoy the right of a conscience vote! One wonders what Chesterton would have made of such a nonsense.

Appeal to conscience

The right of recourse to conscience is not an absolute right. We would not allow someone to commit murder if their conscience somehow "dictated it"; nor would we allow an appeal to conscience to mitigate against criminal proceedings once the deed had been done (save, perhaps, in an insanity plea). A person's right to life is a higher principle.

In respect of Victoria's new abortion laws, however, we are not only dealing with a right not to do something against one's conscience; we are also dealing with a right not to violate a human being's right to life. How can we understand this? Is there a piece missing from the puzzle?

There is. And while it might take the likes of Chesterton's eccentric poet, Gabriel Gale, to understand it, one need not possess the sleuthing skills of Chesterton's other famous character, the detective Father Brown, to identify it.

In the United States, at the United Nations and in the halls of the European Parliament in recent times, there is evidence of a concerted push to have abortion declared a universal human right.

The implications of such a right should be obvious. No-one would be allowed to deny a woman's "right" to an abortion.

The right of recourse to one's conscience would be summarily overridden by appeal to this new-found "right' which, it will no doubt be claimed, is of a higher order. (Enter stage left: Victoria's Abortion Law Reform Act 2008).

Australian states, in order to comply, will then need to consider not only changes to their laws to enshrine such rights but also what protections should be offered to ensure that no-one violates such rights.

A century ago, this October, Chesterton wrote: "Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable." Indeed.

- Paul Russell is from the Office for Family and Life in the Catholic archdiocese of Adelaide.

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