Iona Conference, a resounding success!


Iona NI’s conference “The Future of Conscience in an Age of Intolerance” took place last Saturday in Belfast. A crowd of over 70 people gathered in the Wellington Park Hotel for several talks on the ethical, medical, and legal dimensions of the conscience debate in our current climate.

Among the audience were students from Queen’s University Belfast, medical professionals, A-Level students from Rathmore Grammar School, as well as families, academics, and representatives from the Diocese of Down and Connor, including Bishop Noel Treanor.

The four guest speakers for Iona NI’s conference brought a wide scope of professional experience and insight to the table, commenting on the role of conscientious objection, and the threats to its infringement, as has been witnessed at both a local and an international level.


Dr Helen Watt from the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford gave a scholarly perspective on the dilemmas of complicity faced by many medical practitioners and other professionals today. Dr Watt highlighted, in particular, the issues of cooperation and conscientious objection.

Mr Benedict Ó’Floinn SC gave a talk which highlighted the realities of and urgency of the battle for conscience rights today. With his considerable scope of professional experience navigating the legal intersections of politics, faith, and civic life, Ben provided an engaging commentary on how this battle has played out in recent times, with particular reference to the referendum on the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland.

Mr David Smyth from Evangelical Alliance addressed the confused landscape we currently inhabit when it comes to conscience rights today. With reference to the Ashers Bakery case, David brilliantly highlighted, in particular, intersections where conscience dwells in civic and professional life, and where the battle for its protection finds an axis.

Baroness Nuala O’Loan’s thought-provoking address highlighted how conscientious objection is indispensable as a safeguard for the moral integrity of medical practitioners who should not be forced to compromise values integral to their identity in order to work in their chosen fields of profession. Baroness O’Loan also commented on the opposition faced by the lobby for conscience rights in the House of Lords, where she is currently campaigning to secure Conscientious Objection for doctors, nurse, midwives, and pharmacists.

Iona NI’s conference concluded with a stimulating panel discussion, chaired by Mr David Quinn (journalist and Iona Institute ROI spokesperson), that addressed questions from the audience, providing encouragement and practical input about the exercise of conscience rights today.

Iona Institute NI would like to thank all those who attended the conference and who continue to support our work, throughout their encouragement and donations.

In title image, pictured left-right: Mr Alban Maginness, Mr Benedict Ó’Floinn SC, Dr Helen Watt (Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Oxford), Rathmore Grammar School’s A-Level Ethics class (accompanied by their teacher, Ms Maeve Wright), Mr David Smyth (Evangelical Alliance), and Bishop Noel Treanor (Diocese of Down & Connor)

More photographs from the day are available on our Facebook page, Iona Institute NI.

Several transcripts of the addresses given during the conference can be viewed below.

Talk 1

Conscientious Objection:  What are the principles? 
Dr Helen Watt, Anscombe Bioethics Centre

“The aim is to pursue one’s true vocation to the best of one’s ability while avoiding all wrongful cooperation, whether formal, intended or scandalously close to material cooperation.”

I’m very grateful to the Iona Institute Northern Ireland for hosting this conference and for inviting me to speak.  As a medical ethicist, I will be focusing less on the law than on something more basic:  the moral duties of conscientious objectors, particularly health care professionals.  That said, these duties are obviously such that law-makers and enforcers should really be giving them all the space they can.  It is because these duties of conscience are so important, especially when the subject-matter is life and death, that it is such a serious matter when conscientious objectors are put under pressure – whether by the law, their regulatory body, their employer, a patient or client, or anyone else.

It’s sadly fairly common for people to be asked to involve themselves in something to which they object morally –   from dishonest advertising to corrupt local politics to harmful quasi-medical procedures.  In fact, anyone who has a conscience at all, however badly formed and however inconsistent, may be faced with a situation where they feel they need to object to something they are asked to do.  ‘Just obeying orders’, or ‘just giving people what they want’ may no longer seem enough.

Complicity dilemmas can be stressful and complicated, and some of us here today may feel that in the past, we have got too closely involved ourselves with some kind of wrongdoing in a way we now regret.  We need to be prepared to scrutinise our actions, past and future – though without becoming over-scrupulous, feeling paralysed and refusing any public role.  To contribute to the common good, we often have a duty to act jointly with others with whom we disagree morally  – but only where this can in fact be done without actual moral compromise.

Conscientious objection by health care professionals is often associated with across-the-board objections to certain procedures  –  whether on grounds of faith, or simply human rights and patient welfare. Before I run through some principles,  I’d like to mention Dr Richard Lyus:  an English abortion provider who is nonetheless clearly morally troubled by some aspects of his work.  Citing the moral ambivalence felt by many abortion providers and the psychological effects they report of doing some kinds of abortion in particular, he wants to defend the right to conscientious objection to some abortions even if not to all.   The point is well-taken:  if there are any situations where doctors see or come to see that some particular kind of abortion, at least, would be wrong to do, their moral reluctance should be respected by those around them.  Dr Lyus also makes the point that a junior doctor doing a placement may not have worked  out her position on every possible scenario, and should not be expected to foresee and report in advance every single thing she may not want to do.

Turing then to duties, as opposed to rights of conscience:  how can we make sense of this broad area?   Clearly, it cannot be the case that any level of involvement with anything morally wrong is wrong in itself.  We all pay bills and taxes, though few of us agree with all the ways in which our money will be spent.  Our grocer may spend our money on his gambling addiction, or the government on the pursuit of an unjust war.   Or we can think of our own daily work patterns:  if I am a bus driver one of whose stops falls in the local red-light district, it is not automatically wrong for me to stop at that stop, knowing this will enable prostitution.  Unless I am actually intending to enable prostitution – say, because I have invested financially in the area – my action in stopping, though distasteful, seems morally OK.

So what are the principles here? We should start with a key distinction:  the distinction between ‘formal’ (intended) cooperation in wrongdoing and ‘material’ (unintended) cooperation.  Formal cooperation is sharing some at least of the wrongmaking intentions of the main wrongdoer: being a deliberate, however reluctant, enabler of the wrongdoing itself. In contrast, material cooperation is doing what in effect assists wrongdoing or gives the impression of condoning it, but without sharing the precise wrong-making intentions of the main wrongdoer.  (We will return shortly to material cooperation in wrongdoing, but I will just say at this point that while formal cooperation is necessarily wrong, material cooperation is quite often wrong as well.)

The wrongnesss of formal, intended cooperation in wrongdoing should be fairly easy to understand. If I believe euthanasia, say, or FGM, is a harmful anti-medical procedure I should not perform, then I will or should think it wrong for you to perform the procedure instead.  (Note that ‘wrong’ here does not mean ‘culpable’:  it’s about whether the procedure is morally choiceworthy  –  not about whether others would be to blame for doing it, which depends on their  background and many other things.  Judging actions is not the same as judging people, and more generally, one can treat people in a kind and courteous way, even if one believes that what they are doing is totally morally unjustified, whether culpable or otherwise.)
It is very unreasonable to expect conscientious objectors to refer people specifically for what they see as harmful and unethical procedures.  Trying to keep our own hands clean by getting someone else to do unethical procedures is not a good or logical solution to dilemmas we may face.  In fact, it seems worse to get someone else to do the procedure, as this compromises both of us, not just one. Neither I nor the other person is a cog in a machine: we are both moral agents with responsibilities, and I should not use the person to ‘do my dirty work for me’, so to speak.

What if the other person would not actually perform the wrongful procedure but would ‘merely’ arrange for someone else to perform it?  Here we need to remember that planning or preparing for a wrongful act is wrong in itself.  It is not just the final getting ready or performing the act that is wrong, but everything else deliberately aimed towards that point.  And if preparing for wrongdoing is wrong, the same is true of deliberately helping someone else prepare – where we intend our own act precisely as supporting the wrongful plan of action.  If I plan to rob passers-by at knifepoint, it is wrong for me to buy a knife and lie in wait. And it is wrong for others deliberately to help me in my mugging preparations – as when a fellow-criminal might sell me a knife for that very purpose or suggest dark areas I might lurk in.  As well as not intending that others complete a wrongful action, the conscientious objector should not intend that others plan one – and many suggested ‘solutions’ for conscientious objectors do involve intending others’ wrongful plans.

How, then, should doctors, for example, deal with demands for what they see as anti-medical procedures?  Here many of us will, of course, be thinking of abortion, not just euthanasia or FGM.  Imagine, for example, that I am a British GP who has just been asked for an abortion by a patient whose pregnancy was unplanned. If I am a good doctor, I will respond with sympathy, offering positive help, while explaining that I do not believe abortion is in my patient’s clinical best interests.  Pregnancy, even when it comes at an extremely difficult time, is not, after all, a disease but rather a sign of health.  Abortion is not without risks, both physical and psychological  – and in fact,  I have some experience of adverse effects in my own practice, I might explain.  In short, I am more than happy to support my patient every step along the way should she wish to change her mind– or perhaps she may want to take some time to think it over and discuss it with her partner or family.

As I say these things and more, I might mention to the patient that she is, of course, free to seek a second opinion from a doctor of her choosing.  That may be something I need to tell the patient to try to cover myself with my employer or regulatory body, so as to go on practising as a doctor, and helping patients as best I can. It may also be something that helps defuse the situation: the patient may be more likely to hear what I have to say about support to have her baby if at least she is not feeling actively obstructed. Having mentioned the possibility of a second opinion, and told her it is a matter for her whom she may choose to consult, I might repeat my very sincere offer of help should she decide to have the baby. I might also hand her as she leaves, or invite her to pick up from my desk, a card for an organisation in my area offering positive pregnancy support.

That is the way a caring, conscientious doctor might deal with a request for an abortion, give or take some variations (for example, some will want to tactfully make the point that there is no legal right to abortion: even in Britain, an abortion may not be obtained simply because a pregnancy is unplanned or unwanted at the time.  But my main point here is that the doctor in this situation is not intending the woman pursue an abortion in any way:  not only is the doctor not intending she get an abortion, but the doctor is not intending that she try.

In contrast, very different morally is deliberately attracting and ‘re-directing’ the patient’s abortion-seeking motives, by suggesting the patient find a doctor who does or arranges abortions – or worse, telling her exactly who to go to.  Here, simply in order to keep the patient happy or at least, get her out of one’s consulting room, one is actually intending, if not that she ultimately get an abortion, at least that she try elsewhere.  This is formal cooperation in her trying, and is not a truly caring or professional response.  Given what is at stake, in terms of the loss of her baby and the impact on her, it is no more acceptable than inviting a suicidal patient to jump from another window, not one’s own.

Any good doctor treats health considerations as a large part if not the only part of conscientious practice – and in fact, the General Medical Council’s document Personal Beliefs specifically says that doctors are not legally obliged to provide treatment they see as not clinically appropriate or not of overall benefit to the patient.  Obviously there is no guarantee professional guidance and medical ethics will always coincide – and where they do not, medical ethics must of course prevail. That said, if a doctor sincerely believes that, let’s say, a social abortion is not in the patient’s clinical interests, the abortion can not only be refused as illegal but refused along GMC lines simply as clinically unhelpful to the patient.  This is a separate reason from ‘conscientious objection’ as the GMC understands it in the document Personal Beliefs, which refers to non-clinically based objections to treatment that, in their words, ‘may be clinically appropriate’ for the patient.

We’ve looked at formal cooperation in wrongdoing and preparations for wrongdoing, which I’ve claimed is always morally wrong. However, it’s very important to realise that material, unintended cooperation is not necessarily morally justified either. On the contrary, material cooperation can be not only wrong but seriously wrong in certain cases due to likely effects on the main victim or victims, the main wrongdoer, the person who cooperates, and others who may be badly harmed or confused.

In trying to establish whether or not material, as opposed to formal, cooperation is morally justified we need to compare the reasons for co-operating with those for not co-operating. These reasons include the harm done, to ourselves and others, by either course of action.  Co-operating even materially and remotely in an unjust procedure may harm us, to begin with, in that it may make us less sensitive to the wrong involved in that procedure and inclined to cooperate more closely in the future.  And of course, it may well harm other people, in that it may give them the impression that the wrong concerned is not, after all, so very wrong in our eyes. The greater the risk of corrupting ourselves, or of giving the impression to others that we have no objection, or no strong objection, to some wrongful procedure, the more serious needs to be the reason for doing what facilitates this procedure. That said, as the example of the taxpayer and the bus driver show, it is certainly not the case that all material cooperation in wrongdoing is itself morally excluded.

Conscientious objectors should always bear in mind the distinction between on the one hand, reporting to a supervisor their inability to do something expected of them, and on the other hand, deliberately getting the supervisor or some other colleague to do precisely what is wrong. Telling my boss that I cannot do or arrange abortions (or fill out prescriptions for the morning after pill) is not the same as asking my boss or a colleague to do it in my place. Again, in telling the boss of their objection, health professionals may want to stress particularly that they do not regard abortion (or sterility etc) as in the best interests of the patient and therefore simply cannot deliberately help the patient get something they think will do them only harm.

In all this, it is important, as far as possible, to be confident, pleasant and upbeat, and show by the quality of our work and our flexibility where we can be flexible that we are good and helpful members of the team. It is better not to assume hostility, but rather to invite colleagues to agree – as they may well do – that they would not wish to put us in a difficult situation by asking us to act against our conscience.   Even those who want to make changes in the way they do their work may find that colleagues tolerate such changes in someone they have come to know and respect. Taking a stronger moral line on some issue than in the past may not be as difficult as one fears.

Unless we are all prepared to do anything we are asked to, conscientious objection should be on our moral radar.  Even if our objection is mistaken, we should never go ahead and do something while we still consider it wrong.  We should bear in mind that for a course of behaviour to be wrong, it is enough for it to have one wrong element, even if other elements are in fact unproblematic.  The thought ‘this is wrong to do’ is morally conclusive, rather like a bad further motive.  When it comes to such morally conclusive aspects of our actions, the rule is, one strike and you’re out. We will sometimes make mistakes, but should at least not be acting as our conscience tells us not to at the time.

It is worth remembering that there are things it is wrong for others to pressure us to do, even if they do not involve moral absolutes, and we know that.  If a neo-Nazi forced you to do a Nazi salute, for example, this would reflect more on him than on you.  Similarly, if a serial killer forced you at gunpoint to dig the grave of his next victim (as opposed to taking the life of the next victim –  where you should refuse) you need be doing nothing wrong in digging that grave.  That would not mean that the serial killer (or neo-Nazi) was not acting despicably in threatening you as he did. But the outrage here involves pressure to do something deeply repugnant for reasons concerned with others’ wrongdoing, not to go against your conscience as such.

Of course, normally the pressure brought to bear falls well short of any threat to life. But my point is that our rights to object are not limited to what we have, or think we have,  an absolute duty to refuse.   There are only relatively few moral absolutes ie things that are wrong in all circumstances – things like murder, rape,  adultery, torture and lying (though the last is of  course more controversial).  Where something is involved that is not a moral absolute,  vicious and unpleasant pressure can still be applied to us:  pressure against which we deserve to be protected as well.

We live in a world where even the most respectful act of conscientious objection can be recast as ‘hate’ by those who are unaccustomed to dealing with disagreement by discussion and not by demonisation.  Obviously, we will want to communicate as sensitively as we can, and be prepared to criticise ourselves and where appropriate apologise for any genuine mistakes we may have made.  In trying to act with integrity, we need to look ahead, think of imaginative ways of getting round dilemmas, and generally protect ourselves as best we can, including of course by appealing to human rights and employment law.  While the law should certainly be strengthened, that is no reason not to use what legal recourse we have now.

Why does all of this matter so much, we might ask ourselves in these situations?  At a personal level, it matters more than anything else what kind of people we become. We are, not what we eat (or not only what we eat), but rather, what we choose. While it may be desirable and even a duty to save our jobs and careers if we can, there are certain things we simply cannot choose as they make us genuinely complicit in wrongdoing.   On the other hand, as I mentioned, we can be overscrupulous, and this danger too must be avoided, as it will make us less productive and less helpful to others than we should be. After all, there are many shared projects where we may be able to make a contribution to the common good without actual complicity, as opposed to some acceptable level of material cooperation. The aim is to pursue one’s true vocation to the best of one’s ability while avoiding all wrongful cooperation, whether formal, intended or scandalously close to material cooperation.

Even those who do not accept a particular example of conscientious objection as reasonable should welcome the fact there are people of conscience who are not prepared to do everything they are asked to.  Doctors, nurses, and therapists of conscience (for example) will be thinking of patients and clients and how they can serve their interests, rather than just thinking of ticking boxes, pleasing employers and furthering their careers. And as regards respect for those with whom they disagree, conscientious objectors may be more inclined, not less inclined, to show such respect, and to treat their jobs seriously, and not merely go through the motions.  On the medical front, I will end with a final question:  who cares more about patients and colleagues:  a doctor who will do anything vaguely legal a patient asks, or give any dirty job to a colleague – or one who cares enough about both to remember what medicine is all about?

This talk reproduces some material from ‘Complicity and Cooperation in Evil’, For more on these issues, see papers by various authors in Cooperation, Complicity and Conscience: Problems in Healthcare, Science, Law and Public Policy (Linacre Centre, 2005) and Chapter 6 of Helen Watt, Life and Death in Healthcare Ethics (Routledge, 2000).
Lyus RJ Response to: ‘Why medical professionals have no moral claim to conscientious objection accommodation in liberal democracies’ by Schuklenk and Smalling Journal of Medical Ethics 2017;43:250-252.

Talk 3

Conscience – Where worlds collide
Mr David Smyth, Evangelical Alliance

“There has always been a huge temptation to live in the gap between our beliefs and our actions. This is magnified in an age with so much focus on appearing to do the right actions regardless of beliefs or indeed appearing to hold the correct beliefs without the correlating actions. As many have noted we live in an age of new gnosticism, disembodied beliefs, and bodies divided from morality.”

A few hundred years ago most people didn’t travel more than ten or twenty miles from where they were born. They knew a few hundred people perhaps over the course of their lifetime and knew them face to face. They rose early and went to bed early too. They ate food grown locally and their diet of news events was limited. Their choices about work and marriage and in fact most areas of life were limited too.

Today I can wake up in Belfast and be in Cork or indeed Bali by the end of the day. More data was produced in 2017 and 2018 than in 5,000 years previously. Every minute 300 hours of video content is uploaded unto the internet. I have more choices than I know what to do with. Many of these choices are about personal preference but many choices engage my conscience, or at least they should. Yet somehow it’s easy to find myself increasingly numbed and indifferent when I see stories about famine, Brexit and Kim Kardashian’s bottom side by side.

Conscience is protected in law, in the ECHR, in domestic law in the U.K. And Ireland. It has been part of the legal, ethical, religious and political landscape for hundreds of year. But before I mentioned that, I simply wanted to open with that a glaring understatement – we live in an age of rapid cultural climate change to quote Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, an age of contradiction and confusion. It is profoundly affecting the shape of our humanity, for better and for worse, in ways we are only beginning to understand.

In such esteemed company I thought long and hard about what I could bring to the conversation. I’m not sure I found an answer but as a lawyer, mediator and as someone who works in the space where law, politics, faith and culture intersect – The common thread seems to weave around the contours of contested spaces.

So I want to briefly explore the current contested and confused landscape we find ourselves in when it comes to conscience. We’ll look at a series of intersections where conscience dwells and the battle for its protection finds an axis. I’ll finish by looking at the case of the Asher’s baking company which I think sums up much of what I’ll be talking about.

  • Beliefs and Actions (internal and external)

Conscience always involves a ‘belief bound in action’.
‘The inextricable link between conscience and action is a foundational point and the very reason why any robust protection of conscience must embrace a right to conscientious objection’

Conscience lives at the intersection between  our  beliefs and our actions. So the healthy exercise of conscience involves the aligned of our faith and works. The bible testifies to the truth in James chapter 2 that – Faith without works is dead.

Biblically speaking – Sin can cause our conscience to become “seared” and “corrupted” and wholly unreliable. (1 Tim. 4:2Titus 1:15) And so conscience is only a trusted guide when formed and informed by God.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind – Ron Sider – even though beliefs different little material difference in actions on North American evangelicals.
The book says this – research demonstrates that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general. Divorce is more common among born-again Christians than in the general American population. Only six percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely to object to neighbors of another race. Sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less different than that of their non-evangelical peers. Alan Wolfe concludes, “The truth is, there is increasingly little difference between … the … entertainment industry, and the bring-‘em-in-at-any-cost efforts of evangelical megachurches.” George Barna concludes, “Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change.”

52% of millennial Catholics surveyed in 2014 by Pew Research said abortion should be legal in most cases. 46% said should be illegal in most cases.
Research showed that while likely to list the environment as one of the most pressing social issues, millennials are less likely to actually recycle that over 55s – 22% are not in the habit of recycling compared to just 6% of over 55s.

So in this present age at the intersection between thought and action, consumerism and individualism create an environment where our conscience can be numbed or dumbed down or formed in selfish and unhealthy ways, or deformed to use the language of St. Augustine.

There has always been a huge temptation to live in the gap between our beliefs and our actions. This is magnified in an age with so much focus on appearing to do the right actions regardless of beliefs or indeed appearing to hold the correct beliefs without the correlating actions. As many have noted we live in an age of new gnosticism, disembodied beliefs, and bodies divided from morality.

So might I suggest that we live in a Western culture which still appreciates an integrity between belief and action, hacksaw ridge, but profoundly struggles to live up to the beliefs we hold. It has always been this way but in a post-truth world we are at risk of losing all bearings.

  • Individual and community (rights, responsibilities & relationships)

Conscience, belief bound in action, is found at the intersection between the individuals and the community. If the first intersection is about our relationship with the Lord and our hearts before him, the second is about our relationship with our neighbor. A challenge to our conscience will always engage our relationship and responsibilities to our neighbour.

But as I mentioned we live in an age of social fragmentation, where personal autonomy reigns and for many, functionally speaking, the community is there to serve and secure my personal freedoms.
On the face of it, you could argue this sounds good for the protection of personal conscience does it not? But in reality, the horizons of acceptable beliefs have shrunken in a world contained to secular boundaries. Disenchantment and the supernatural has been largely written out of the script – so the boundaries of the possible are reduced.

Judges 17:6 & 21:25
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Something of a refrain – which sums up the cycle that God’s people repeatedly fell into. Today in our society perhaps the same could be said – perhaps paraphrased differently….. In these days there is no God – everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

However, in the eyes of many in the community, Christians have gone from harmless do-gooders to harmful do-badders. In this society the prevailing view seems to be rather than protecting conscience, particular beliefs are becoming more and more unconscionable. So no-one can tell you what to believe ….but you obviously can’t believe that!

We see a strange contradiction played out in the recent referendum to remove blasphemy laws in the South and campaign by Humanists UK to remove them here. Personally I’m happy for blasphemy laws to be removed, I don’t believe it is the role of the state to defend the doctrines of the Church. Jesus was mocked while on earth and continues to be today, he does not need human laws to defend him. The difficulty though is that religious blasphemy laws are being replaced by secular blasphemy laws.

Because of course modern secularism is extremely religious. There are the sacred texts and commandments of equality and human rights legislation, decreed at sacred committees by the secular high priests of our age.

The Spirit of social media helps to intersectionally impart these higher laws and values to us. A privileged few have been ‘woke’, born again and brought to life by the spirit of this age, evangelically sharing their new gospel. Part of the new crusade to re-colonise this dark and ignorant world and ban dark-age heresies. The new enlightenment.

Christians believe in a God who created the world and will one day judge justly our blasphemies of word and deed. They say there is still time to repent and enter the new Kingdom.
But now that Christianity has been dismissed, we’ve got rid of shame, stigma and judging others, haven’t we?
The brave new world is much more inclusive and tolerant.
That is until you disagree – bigot – or worse commit the crime of secular blasphemy.
You don’t believe a man can become a woman? – blasphemy.
You don’t think women should be able to abort healthy unborn babies as a matter of course? – blasphemy.
You disagree with me? – heretic.
Today the secular Pharisees wear their own virtue for all to see in the online marketplace.
Maybe you won’t be criminalised just yet for your blasphemous hate speech, but if in doubt – say nothing because redemption is not the end of the secular story. So whisper your heresies and pray your secular sins do not find you out.

  • Big issues are found at the intersection of big stories (worldview)

Issues of conscience are always found at the intersection of different ways of seeing the world – Different views of the common and ultimate good – different understandings of who we are, where we’ve come from, where we are going and why we are here.

This has always been a difficult space, legally, ethically, relationally – what is compounding it at the moment is the lack of shared and cohesive values and common vision to help us navigate the way together.

The Grid – important to understand the big differences in the big stories –  beginnings and endings to understand why the current clash on conscience protections is so live.

Modern society (academia, media, politics) set of secular assumptions – lives between an accident and death.

Beginning random accident – no higher human worth or purpose, no higher moral authority beyond human beings.

Ending death, not final judgement or justice or hope of redemption.
So in the here and now the story is about self…

Compare this big story with basic understandings of beginnings and endings of the Christian story – in the beginning God created… worth, purpose, objective moral value… answering the big questions, who am I and why am I here? Ending, Judgement, justice, hope and life eternal…
So in the here and now we see things differently, the Christian story is one of sacrifice, Christ for us, us for Him and the other…

And so the current obsession with human rights, equality, the battle against prejudice is interesting in the Western worldview around us. Some of this is really good and evidence of the common grace of God. It’s evidence that despite the scars of the fall, the human image and relationships are still key to how we live our lives. It’s evidence that deep down humanity seeks justice and redemption – putting wrong things right.

But there is ultimately a doomed attempt here to seek justice with acknowledging the Judge, Kingdom values without the King, redemption without repentance, an attempt to give dignity to humanity while refusing to acknowledge the One in whose image we are made, an attempt to achieve equality without acknowledging Jesus before whom we all stand equally in need of salvation.

Simply again to say that the battle of conscience and for conscientious protection takes place at the intersection between our beliefs and actions, individuals and communities and the big worldview stories that shape the public discourse.

Ashers Baking Company

Let me now take some of these intersections and briefly turn to the case of Ashers Baking Company. On Wednesday, 10 October the Supreme Court in London delivered the final judgment in the now famous case.

It began five years ago when a man walked into Daniel and Amy McArthur’s bakery and asked for a cake with the message ​“support gay marriage” iced on top. The Christian owners initially accepted the order but then declined, citing conflict with their religious beliefs. The customer, Gareth Lee, who is gay, felt that he had been discriminated against and approached the Equality Commission Northern Ireland (ECNI) for advice. The ECNI backed his case and proceedings against the bakery were issued.
The five Supreme Court judges unanimously ruled that there had been no discrimination against the customer on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief or political opinion – the last ground being peculiar to Northern Ireland.

As the icing sugar settles on the ruling, here are three broad points I’d like us to consider:

A win for everyone
The case is a win for the LGBT community. In fact, it’s a win for all protected minorities under equality law legislation. Lady Hale, who presided in the Preddy v Bull case, made clear that this judgment does not give license to discriminate against anyone based on any protected characteristic. She said:
“It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any of the other protected personal characteristics. But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope.”

The case was also a win for business owners, including those of faith. Lady Hale said:
“It is, of course, the case that businesses offering services to the public are not entitled to discriminate on certain grounds. The bakery could not refuse to provide a cake  or any other of their products  to Mr Lee because he was a gay man or because he supported gay marriage. But that important fact does not amount to a justification for something completely different  obliging them to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed. In my view, they would be entitled to refuse to do that whatever the message conveyed by the icing on the cake  support for living in sin, support for a particular political party, support for a particular religious denomination.”

The ruling attempts to protect everyone from discrimination on the basis of a protected characteristic and people’s freedom from compelled speech or support for a message with which they profoundly disagree. The family said they could not in their conscience under God complete this order. Their dignified stand for, effectively, their freedom to conscience objection resulted in a win for everyone.

A story being told
Legal cases don’t just occur in a vacuum. They quickly become part of a narrative in which there are just causes and oppressors, winners and losers. Some political parties in Northern Ireland supported one side or the other as if it was party policy. Congratulations to the McArthurs and criticisms of the Equality Commission came thick and fast from many within the DUP, meanwhile Sinn Féin issued ​“a message of solidarity to the LGBT community” on the day of the result.

There was a strong implication in some quarters that this case could only happen in a ​‘backwards’ place like Northern Ireland. This suits a particular secular view where the default framing is that religion is a problem to progress because it is inherently prejudiced and potentially harmful. It therefore surprised many people that a panel of judges in the highest court in the UK, based in the cosmopolitan capital, could decide unanimously that there was no discrimination.

In short, the case was often pitched as being about Christians v the LGBT community, but the judges were unanimously emphatic that this was not how they saw the case. The objection was to the message not the customer.

So in an age of identity politics, where truth is an endangered concept, it’s important we strive to tell the real story and not the one that fits best with ​‘our’ particular side.

A better way ahead?
In a media interview after the ruling, Mr Lee said that he ​“felt like a second-class citizen”. This is sad and deeply unfortunate. We hope he can find comfort in the fact that five judges thoroughly tested the evidence and the law and found no discrimination against him on any grounds. Where discrimination has occurred it is right and proper that it is investigated and dealt with.

Undoubtably some in the LGBT community in NI feel aggrieved, some of this is for good reason. Undoubtedly some Christians feel marginalised, some of this for good reason. In a society where many gay people feel their rights have been withheld, and Christians may feel like they are on the margins, it is inevitable that people will feel discriminated against in instances where, legally, this is not the case.
Outside the court, the McArthurs said they would happily serve Mr Lee in the future. While this may be their legal duty, it was also a beautiful moment of Christian humility and hospitality and bridge-building offered to someone who had sued them and accused them of discrimination.

Whichever way the result had went, we can be sure that there will be more litigation in similar cases in the future. From the start, the Equality Commission said that its hands were tied by the structures which prevented them from pursuing a role as mediator or investigator once a party had come to them with a complaint. If the bakery had gone to the Equality Commission first, or subsequently to the Human Rights Commission, this case could have looked very different from the outset.

In my view, there should be some reconsideration of these structures where a potential legal case involves parties which are each claiming protected characteristics under equality or human rights legislation. There must be a better mechanism which can allow for conversation, understanding and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to be facilitated in cases where both parties have protected characteristics and where the outcome of the case is in the public interest by way of clarifying the law.

This case was a symptom of a deeper problem, a clash of worldviews. In this contested space there is an urgent need for Christians to play their part as peacemakers and seek the best for everyone. It’s easy to pick a side when your conscience is engaged.

The challenge for me, for us, is to maintain your conscience while crossing boundaries of relationship as a two Corinthians five ambassador of Christ with a radical message of reconciliation from the God who calls his enemies to be his sons and daughters.

In my experience, and in good Irish tradition, a good place to begin these challenging conversations is over a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

Talk 4

Freedom of Conscience
Baroness Nuala O’Loan

“It cannot be consistent with conscience to say, “I cannot do this, but I will order you to do it”. If one delegates, supervises or supports an activity, one is not unreasonable in concluding that one shares moral responsibility for what happens.”

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.  It is very good to be here today and I congratulate Tracy Harkin and the Iona Institute for the initiative in convening this conference today, and in bringing the distinguished speakers to whom I have had the pleasure of listening today.

Our rights to freedom of speech, belief and religion (which includes the right to have no religion)  are rights for which people fought over centuries.  They were, it seemed the product of the values which informed our society.   They give us a right to exercise our conscience in thought word and action, but they are not absolute.

Exercising one’s conscience in the workplace is something which came into public consciousness during the First World War when the right not to go to battle, if you had a conscientious objection to killing your fellow man, was recognised. 16,000 men were excused from conscription to military service on grounds of conscience. Some, such as Quakers, did so because of their religious beliefs. Others, such as radical socialists, did so out of political principle.

Then, during World War II, there were 60,000 registered conscientious objectors. It was not easy for them—maybe some would say it was not easy for others who fought.  It was possible to accommodate conscientious objection even at this most perilous time. The United Kingdom, therefore, has had a long and proud record of recognition of rights of conscience and respect for conscience.

They have been given legal effect in international and domestic law through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Since shortly after the Second World War these rights have been regarded as part of a package of fundamental human rights.

Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which is now part of our legislative framework, expressly enacts a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; it includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching practice and observance. From time to time we hear talk of the repeal of the Act, but thus far it is safe.

This freedom is  limited only as prescribed by law and only to the extent necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights interpreted the Article 9 right to “freedom … to manifest … belief” to include conscientious objection and overturned the conviction of an Armenian Jehovah’s Witness for his refusal to perform military service at a time when there was no other option available to him.

It is those rights which underpin in law our rights of freedom of conscience and our rights of conscientious objection to being involved in processes or actions which we believe to be morally wrong.

The struggle, and it is a struggle, to articulate this in terms which will persuade the secularised society in which we live is profoundly difficult.  It is made even more difficult when different churches and church people have different views of what is sacred, not negotiable.  Even life is one of those issues.  I will speak later about the right of conscientious objection in the work place.

But we have so many different understandings of what is morally right, of what conscience demands of us. Let me give you an example. At intervals attempts are made in the US Congress to change  America’s gun laws,. 64% of all homicides in the US are gunshot killings. in 2014 there were 8124 gunshot homicides, most of them single victim homicides, but some like the 49 deaths in Florida mass shootings. You are as likely to die in the US from a gunshot homicide as from a car accident.

There is this perception among some Americans that they need their guns to defend themselves and that the constitutional right to carry arms is something which a right which must not be diminished in any way.  I have often thought about the fact that this right, so cherished, results in such a high level of deaths by gunshot.  In the UK only 4% of homicides are gunshot killings.

A few years ago in Rome at the Annual Meeting of the International Catholic Legislators network, discussing the sacredness of life, and very much focussed on abortion, I challenged our US members on this issue of gun law and the extent to which America’s gun laws contribute to the frequency with which guns are used.  There were those rounded on me thoroughly, accusing me of ‘politicising the right to life’ in this way, as they put it. There were complaints to the Cardinal attending the meeting.

Sometimes our lived experience can result in the creation of something which is not quite consistent with our fundamental beliefs.  I think that is what has happened. There is a need to guard against the erosion of our fundamental beliefs as our policies and values as society evolves.  If we are not careful we can become almost not immune, maybe, but less observant of that which instinctively and in conscience we believe to be wrong.

Think about the unborn child, think that it is in that context that one of our deepest conflicts as a nation is exposed.  Put simply the mother who wants her child is carrying a baby, an unborn baby, a little child.  The woman who does not want, or feels she cannot carry her child, for whatever reason, does not in the eyes of pro-choice activists carry a baby.  She has a foetus.  That is all.   It goes further.  There was rejoicing recently that doctors are now able to create a 3D image of an unborn baby’s heart, identify the exact nature or scope of a particular cardiac problem which a child has, and prepare them for surgery immediately they are born, knowing what the problem is.  That mother is definitely expecting a baby.

Yet when a later term abortion is carried out and a living child is born, perhaps because the normal procedures of injecting potassium chloride into the baby’s heart to ensure that it is delivered dead, has not been followed, that child may well be left to die, cold, uncared for, rejected. It could live but it will not be nourished to enable that life.  We know that about 30 babies die that way each year in the UK.  To me this is unthinkable.  Yet that is where we are.

And so last year 56 million children were aborted across the world – one in four children.  In England and Wales only, in 2017, the latest year for which statistics are available, there were 192,900 abortions for women resident in England and Wales and 197,533 abortions including non-residents abortions.  We know that the law has been routinely flouted:  that doctors pre-sign forms and that they may never even see the women presenting for abortion, that babies are aborted because they are little girls. One of the questions I ask myself constantly is how can a pro-choice feminists advocate for abortion when in so doing so many little girls  who should be born will die, and the reality is that sometimes they die because they are little girls? And what of the children aborted because they have things like Downs Syndrome, even because they have club feet and cleft palates, things which are easily fixed.  I met a beautiful little girl once who was born with a club foot.  She had her treatment and the day I met her she had the loveliest little flowered wellington boots on, and when she danced lights sparkled on them. Delightful.

It’s not just abortion though.  The other issue which raises major ethical issues is how life ends.

There is huge debate about dying, and about whether people should be allowed the right to ask doctors to terminate their lives for them (euthanasia), or to die by assisted suicide.  Regular press articles tell us terribly sad stories of ill people who have chosen to travel form the UK to places like Dignitas in Switzerland to end their lives because they cannot be euthanased or die through assisted suicide here.  The situation is often presented as one in which dreadful suffering has been brought to a gentle, dignified, painless and merciful end through the administration of drugs.  The argument goes that it is inhumane to expect people to suffer as they can be seen to be suffering and that ‘we would not allow an animal to suffer like that.” 

The pro-choice lobby, the advocates of the decriminalisation of abortion and assisted suicide use the language of compassion, care, dignity, love, choice.  They too have a right to freedom of thought and belief.  As a society we have to find an accommodation between these competing articulations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

That accommodation can, and has occurred through the provision of conscientious objection rights.  As respect for conscience applies to those who refuse to participate in the taking of life in war, so it has been applied to those who refuse to be involved in what they see as the taking of life through healthcare practice.  There have been some encouraging developments where there has been recognition development of the right of conscientious objection.  I think of the case in October last year, when the Supreme Court of Norway found that Dr. Katarzyna Jachimowicz, a Polish Catholic doctor who lost her job for refusing to insert abortifacient devices acted within her rights when refusing to follow through with a medical procedure to which she had a moral objection.

In the UK we seem to have gone backwards rather than forwards.  In 1967, when the UK legislated to decriminalise abortion in certain limited circumstances, ( and the projection was for 5,000 abortions a year) provision was made for conscientious objection for doctors and nurses, because it was understood that what was being made legal was regarded by some as the taking of life. Were it not so, there would have been no need for protection of conscience. In 1990, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was passed, there was again limited provision for conscientious objection, and in every instance in which an attempt has been made in Parliament to promote Parliament assisted suicide or euthanasia, there has been provision for conscientious objection. Where conscientious objection is permitted, it is not absolute. Medical practitioners must assist in a crisis to save life or to prevent grave or permanent injury. It is a complex field. In the UK, some have statutory rights. Some, like GPs, have contractual rights not to engage, but it is a contractual right, not a statutory right, and some, such a pharmacists have no rights at all.

The interpretation of the conscientious objection clause was narrowed in 2014,  when the case of Greater Glasgow Health Board v Doogan and Another was heard by the Supreme Court. In this case, two senior midwives conscientiously objected to having to delegate tasks to, supervise or support those directly involved in abortion. They had been able to assert this right of conscientious objection for their whole nursing careers—which started very shortly after the Abortion Act was passed—until an amalgamation of hospitals led to their being required to do this work. Ultimately they could not, in conscience, have any role in the provision of abortion. Those skilled, compassionate, experienced midwives were unable to continue to serve as midwives, doing what they had done all their professional lives: helping women through the sometimes difficult process of carrying and bearing a child. I know that is difficult; anybody who has carried a child knows the sensitivities attached to it. Those good women were lost to the profession because the Supreme Court decided that indirect roles taken by nurses and midwives were excluded from protection under Section 4 of the Abortion Act.

It cannot be consistent with conscience to say, “I cannot do this, but I will order you to do it”. If one delegates, supervises or supports an activity, one is not unreasonable in concluding that one shares moral responsibility for what happens.

Does it matter that we force people to act against their conscience – to do that which they believe to be morally wrong.  Of course it does. Professor Dan Brock, a leading bioethicist at Harvard, described conscience as the basis of an individual’s moral integrity, saying that it defines who, at least morally speaking, the person is. Maintaining moral integrity, he asserts, requires that a person does not violate their moral commitments. That is why we allow conscientious objection in healthcare, so that people can maintain their moral integrity, without which major health and other problems will almost inevitably emerge. Through conscience, each of us decides whether an action is right or not. As Dr Sara Forage and Dr Mary Neal state, conscience is fundamental to moral agency and a proper feature of all areas of human endeavour, including professional practice. The provision of medical services, of course, is never value-free. Healthcare practitioners make moral judgments all day, every day, and these are often very difficult judgments.

It is for his reason that I have a Bill before Parliament which seeks to provide rights of conscientious objection to medical practitioners.   Its provisions seek to affirm as a matter of statute that no one shall be under any duty to participate in activities they believe involve the taking of human life, either in the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment or in any activity authorised by the 1967 or 1990 Acts. Such a reform would re-establish legal protection for medical conscientious objectors and reaffirm the Article 9 rights of healthcare workers. It would give reality to the protections afforded in the Equality Act.

There is a serious shortage of healthcare professionals; we are having to bring doctors and nurses from abroad. We spent £100 million bringing 3,000 GPs from other countries here this year, we are short of 3,500 midwives, and in 2016, according to the Royal College of Midwives, we spent nearly £100 million on agency nurses. There is a problem. Many young doctors, midwives and other healthcare professionals are leaving the UK. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that those who labour at the coalface cannot engage in certain activities. We invest in their training; we need their skills—it is time to accommodate them.

Ireland has similar problems.

A good friend of mine, Ian McColl, Lord McColl is a very distinguished surgeon. For many years he and his wife Jean, also a surgeon, worked together through all their holidays on the Mercy Ships, bringing  essential life-giving surgical interventions to people in places like Liberia.  He said this recently “It seems to me an important part of the British liberal constitutional tradition that we place a lot of emphasis on freedom. This freedom has many aspects, but central to it is the opportunity to work in ones chosen profession without being required to act in a way that violates ones own identity. Ours is not a constitutional tradition in which we use the law to compel people to decide between acting against their deepest moral convictions and losing their livelihood. The hounding of people out of their jobs on this basis is deeply illiberal. Although our constitutional tradition is closely associated with liberty, there are moments in our history when we have failed in this regard.” Speaking of the 34 amendments which have been tabled to my 2 clause Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities Bill) he said,  I fear that historians looking back on this set of amendments in a hundred years’ time might recoil from them and wonder how on earth we came so close to stepping away from our historic British commitment to liberty.

I think we have to ask ourselves now to what extent does society really permit us to express these freedoms of speech, belief and opinion?  And to what extent is the restriction on freedom of speech a necessary and proper restriction?  We can recognise the value of a restriction that prevents those who would wish to do so from calling for someone to be killed, from expressing extreme racist views:  those have come to be called hate crimes.  The problem is that the boundaries of what is known and understood shift constantly, and that in consequence the limits of what can be said and done shift equally constantly.

And so I find myself asking ‘what are our values as society?’  Sometime I really wonder.  I grew up able to identify Christianity in all its forms as a massive influence in terms of philosophy, philanthropy and societal development.  Now much that I accepted and still accept as fundamental values seem be rejected in the world in which I live.
And that presents problems.  Many of you will be Christian/ Catholic. But even within our ranks there are questions about our fundamental values and the extent to which they are accepted in the context of the demands and culture of the many groups which exist within within the ‘confines of a common civilisation?

The fundamental values of respect for life from beginning to natural end, of compassion, of offering one’s life for another, of caring for the weak and the vulnerable, of respecting, not isolating and forgetting, the old and the sick, of providing education and health care, and of doing all in the name of the Lord can seem to many of those of us of religious faith to be unchallengeable.  Yet in the modern secular world they are much challenged.

In my Bill  currently before the House of Lords I have sought to provide a right of conscientious objection to those medical practitioners who feel morally unable to participate in such processes.

The opposition to it has been fierce.

It has been suggested that providing the right of conscientious objection to medical practitioners  so that they are not under any duty to participate in activities they believe involve the taking of human life, either in the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment or in any activity authorised by the 1967 or 1990 Acts, we would:

  • abandon patients or their families.
  • cause them to suffer
  • force people to be treated against their will
  • restrict access to abortion
  • allow patients to force medical professionals to do anything.
  • reject or deny the welfare and wishes of patients
  • deprive people of the right to reject treatment
  • have a negative effect on hospice care.

None of these assertions are true. That is where reasonable accommodation comes in.  And there has been some reasonable accommodation in England and Wales in the past.
What the bill would do

  • is to provide a right of conscientious objection to those who genuinely object to engaging in particular medical situations.

As a former Lord Chancellor of England and Wales, Lord         Mackay       said “We have to make the point that the obligation to provide these services is not on the employee but on the health service itself. Therefore, it has the responsibility of making the necessary arrangement to accommodate the views of those who think that these activities are wrong. I do not believe that it is right that the health service or any other service should rely to a substantial           extent for its success in requiring any of its employees to do what they think to be wrong.”

  • so we must highlight the fact that the responsibility to provide National Health Service care is a responsibility of the health service, not the individual employee
  • give statutory protection—not guidance, not administrative protection—to staff who do not have it, because the right to conscientious objection is not a universal right accorded to all medical practitioners by statute under the Abortion Act. It does not protect, for example, GPs and pharmacists.

The Bill is about allowing medical practitioners to act in accordance with their conscience. It is about recognising that people who have a fundamental objection to doing something should not be forced to arrange others to do it. It is about making the health service inclusive so that all medical practitioners can take their rightful place in the discipline of their choice rather than being restricted to areas in which they can work or being forced to leave the United Kingdom. Lord Mackay, speaking in support of the Bill said, the Bill is about asserting that it is not necessary or right to force people to do things that they hold to be wrong.

It is about legislating to ensure that we have the best possible health service, staffed by the best possible medical practitioners, providing the service in accordance with the wishes of the patient and capable of accommodating the conscientious objection of medical practitioners.

As a society we need to reflect on these things.  We surely have a duty to ensure that politicians too can never be required to vote or act against their own deeply held beliefs. Politicians across Ireland and the UK need great courage to stand for what they believe in. Sometimes that can be difficult.   People everywhere need politicians who are prepared to act in accordance with their beliefs, even when they do not conform to party policy.

We saw what can happen when parties abrogate their responsibilities to their members here in Belfast almost two years ago.

On 3 April 2017 Belfast City Council debated an apparently innocuous motion, that This Council recognises that all individuals have the right to healthcare, which includes that healthcare should be physically accessible and within safe reach for all sections of the population. People should not face fear and intimidation when accessing healthcare services.
Therefore, the Council condemns all harassment and intimidation taking place outside facilities in Belfast and Northern Ireland that offer reproductive healthcare, including attempts to physically block access to facilities, verbal intimidation, and the filming and recording of staff and clients entering and leaving the building.” 

One could ask how could anyone object to such a motion? Why was such a motion necessary?   It was, though, one of those tricky situations in which politicians can find themselves.

All was not simple. The debate which ensued referred to “activism” outside “healthcare facilities” in Belfast, where it was alleged that the users of reproductive healthcare facilities had been harassed by activists.

Everyone knew that this motion was not a general motion as it appeared to be. Rather it was about challenging pro-life protesters who had been protesting in support of life in one Belfast street.  The debate was articulated in noble terms – that people, ‘mainly women’  should not be harassed when trying to seek advice about abortion in situations where the pregnancy was the rest of ‘rape incest, fatal foetal abnormality.’  There was talk of “verbal and physical assault of those seeking such advice,” of “a barrage of unsolicited material” and “verbal intimidation.” 

Although the motion was crafted as an apparent attempt to protect those using Belfast healthcare facilities, actually it was about the pro-life campaign’s activities at the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast.  There was reference to “that building,” and a request was made for a recorded vote, so that the public could see who voted and in what way.

I should be very clear at this point that I do not support harassment or intimidation of any kind.  Where they occur they should be dealt with by the law.  That is what happens.

One of the parties considered the motion and rightly concluded that it is opposed to intimidation of any kind. They then concluded that the specific motion did not relate to any change in the law in relation to abortion rights, and issued  “a clear directive that … councillors should support the motion.’”

Three …Councillors, decided that they couldn’t vote for the motion on grounds of conscience.. They were all suspended from the party. One of them was reported to have said, “I’m disappointed that the … has suspended me for voting pro-life. I thought the position of the party was pro-life…I don’t support the harassment or intimidation of anyone, but I do believe in standing up for the rights of the unborn.”

On 19 June, still suspended by their party for their actions, those three Councillors resigned. One of them said ’Moral issues should be a matter of personal conscience and party policy should reflect that.’  

It is ironic that this meeting of Belfast City Council started with the reading by the Lord Mayor, of a verse from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 12:2, ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good pleasing and perfect will.’

Political parties need to recognise these fundamental freedoms and not put their members is such a position. They need to be able to negotiate the tricky waters of cleverly word motions which do not name what they are really about, by recognising the right to freedom of conscience and hence not compel  members to vote for a motion, they consider to be morally wrong.

I do not believe anyone should ever be subject to intimidation. I believe that the human right to freedom of opinion and expression on this issue, is one of the most basic human rights which must be protected.  The right to speak and protest in defence of the unborn is profoundly important.  Children in the womb cannot speak up to assert their right to life. They must rely on others.  There is no right to abortion under Human Rights Law, although many seek to claim that there is.  For me the pro-life protest was, and is, the expression of those freedoms.  If protestors transgress the law, then they should be dealt with under the law.

Abortion is illegal under the law in Northern Ireland,  except in very limited circumstances. there are those who are working very hard to change that.  To drag those of us who profess the right to life from conception to natural end into the modern world.  They are seeking now to decriminalise abortion through Parliament at Westminster, because there is no Assembly here.  Decriminalisation means what it says that there will be no crime in the conduct of any abortion.  Scotland, England and Wales have partial decriminalisation What is sought now is to decriminalise abortion completely.

Those who seek in conscience to protect life have much to do.

Thank you.

Press Releases

Press Release on 30th March Conference, “The Future of Conscience in an Age of Intolerance”

The challenge of being faithful to your conscience in a climate of illiberal ‘tolerance’ will be the focus of a conference in Belfast on Saturday organised by by The Iona Institute NI.

Iona NI Spokeswoman Tracy Harkin states; “Freedom of conscience has become a major issue of our time. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion are the hallmark of any genuinely pluralist and democratic society.

Freedom of conscience is protected as a fundamental human right under the European convention on human rights, Yet recent examples in Ireland, the UK, and other countries show concerted attempts are underway to eradicate this right. Medical professionals, teachers, business owners, and parents have all been impacted.

Medical professionals in particular are experiencing increasing discrimination in the workplace because of their beliefs. The Irish Government’s recent insistence that the majority of GPs who conscientiously object to abortion will be forced to refer to another doctor, has led to major discontent among the Irish medical profession.

In Sweden Ellinor Grimmark, a midwife who refused to carry out abortions, has been forced to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights as she is unable to get work in a public hospital- even though Sweden is a country with a shortage of midwives.

In the UK Muslim, Christian, and other concerned parents are being told they cannot withdraw their children from Government-sponsored school programmes which teach young children that gender is not biologically given but a matter of choice.

Last week Catholic media commentator Caroline Farrow was instructed by police to present herself for questioning after being reported for using the wrong pronoun to describe a transgender girl on twitter.

Closer to home, the McArthur family had to endure a costly, four-and-a-half-year legal battle when their bakery politely refused to ice a cake with a political slogan, and the case against them was backed by the equality commission.

Whatever your views on the particular morality of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage or gender ideology, surely freedom of conscience should be explicitly protected in law and practice.

In the absence of such protections there is a danger that simply expressing the Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage and human sexuality, for example, could become a hate crime.

Ironically we are in danger of becoming an intolerant, illiberal society in the name of tolerance!”

Against this background, Saturday’s conference, entitled ‘The Future of Conscience in an Age of Intolerance’, will help explore this hugely important issue.  Iona NI is delighted to welcome an expert line-up of speakers.

These include legal expert and member of the House of Lords, Nuala O’Loan DBE, who is currently campaigning for conscience rights through her sponsorship of a parliamentary bill which seeks to protect the freedom of conscience of medical professionals.

Dr Helen Watt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford whose publications and research interests include reproductive ethics, action theory and issues of cooperation and conscientious objection.

Benedict Ó Floinn, Senior Counsel and trial advocate, has been a prominent participant in the various debates to amend the Irish Constitution and has appeared in a wide range of landmark cases involving human rights and constitutional provisions.

David Smyth is a former solicitor who leads on public policy for the Evangelical Alliance NI and represents them on a range of government, civic and charitable forums.

The event will take place in the Wellington Park Hotel Belfast on Saturday 30th March from 10 -1.30pm .Speakers are available for interviews. For all media inquiries email or call Tracy Harkin at 07531149891



Conference 30th March 2019: ‘The Future of Conscience in an Age of Intolerance’

The Iona Institute NI warmly invites you to

“The Future of Conscience in an Age of Intolerance” 


Saturday 30th March 2019


Wellington Park Hotel,

Malone Road, Belfast BT 9 6RU

10 am – 1pm (Registration opens 9.30am)

See timetable below for further details.

To book or request further information, please email

Our Guest Speakers

Dr Helen Watt is Senior Research Fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, United Kingdom.  Her publications include The Ethics of Pregnancy, Abortion and Childbirth and Life and Death in Healthcare Ethics, together with several edited volumes including Cooperation, Complicity and Conscience. Her research interests include reproductive ethics, action theory and issues of cooperation and conscientious objection.

Dr Helen Watt

Benedict Ó Floinn is a Senior Counsel and was called to the Bar in 1992, after reading law at Christ Church, Oxford. He has been in practice continuously as a trial advocate : predominantly in Ireland, but also overseas. He has been a prominent participant in the various debates to amend the Irish Constitution. Mr O Floinn served for several years on the Education Committee of the Kings Inns, Dublin; was a member of the expert group advising the Law Reform Commission on the Consolidation and Reform of the Courts Acts and was consultant editor of de Brúin’s Transnational Litigation. He is the author of Practice and Procedure in the Superior Courts. Mr. O Floinn has appeared in a wide range of landmark cases involving human rights and constitutional provisions, including the tracing and seizing of criminally-acquired assets for the Criminal Assets Bureau, since its establishment in 1996.


David Smyth leads on public policy for the Evangelical Alliance NI and represents them on a range of government, civic and charitable forums. A former solicitor, he is very interested in the space where faith, law, politics and culture intersect. He is husband to Judith and father to Maeve, Finn and Isaac.


Nuala O’Loan DBE has been a Member of the UK House of Lords since 2009. She was the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland from 1999-2007. She has produced more than 100 articles and other publications on law, policing, faith and other issues.  In the House of Lords, Baroness O’Loan is currently campaigning for conscience rights through her sponsorship of a parliamentary bill which seeks to protect the freedom of conscience of medical professionals, including doctors, midwives, nurses, and pharmacists.

Nuala O'Loan

Conference Timetable


Registration Opens


Talk 1 – Dr Helen Watt


Talk 2 – Mr Benedict Ó Floinn SC


Refreshment Break

(Tea/Coffee/Scones provided)


Talk 3 – Mr David Smyth


Talk 4 – Baroness Nuala O’Loan


Panel Discussion





BBC Top Table show predictably sets narrow frame for discussion on abortion

This week’s blog entry is by Tracy Harkin.

Participating in a show like Top Table when the topic of abortion is under discussion is always going to be a difficult forum for the pro-life voice to be heard in any balanced way. It seems the key to the pro ‘choice’ lobby’s success in advancing abortion on demand worldwide has been to focus on the 2% of ‘hard cases’. This tactic shuts down any discussion on the reality of abortion for the baby and ignores research which shows the damaging effects of abortion on women. In this respect Wednesday’s BBC1NI Top Table show hosted by Stephen Nolan didn’t disappoint: the question ‘Should a 12-year-old victim of rape have to travel to England for an abortion?’ immediately and deliberately set a very narrow framework within which to address the issue.

Interestingly, neither myself nor fellow panellist Peadar Tóibín were told in advance of the show that this question would be the talking point, rather we were only alerted to the general topic. It is worth mentioning that Joel Scott, the only pro-life youth on the panel, did a sterling job throughout the debate, highlighting evidence which shows the proven psychological benefits for women who keep their babies following rape. What’s more, two of the three comments from the audience of young people under 21 also showed that not all were convinced that abortion should be the go-to option, even in these very rare cases.

Despite the repeated attempts made by Peadar and myself to put this discussion in context and talk about the 98% of abortions taking place for socio-economic reasons, the debate directed by Stephen Nolan (which also underwent careful editing) went on to focus on the other rare cases of babies diagnosed with so-called “fatal foetal abnormalities”. Nolan, who won an award for his high-profile documentary about Sarah Ewart’s journey to London to abort her baby which had been diagnosed with anencephaly, invited panellist Sarah to once more tell her story. For Sarah, abortion in this instance is simply healthcare and women who cannot face the prospect of continuing their pregnancy and bringing the baby to term should have the choice to abort in Northern Ireland.

Reality of late-term abortion never discussed
What is never discussed, however, is the reality of abortion for the baby. These are late-term abortions in which the baby is given a lethal injection into the heart and then the mother still has to deliver the baby. What is also ignored is how difficult this is for the mother; no holding their baby, feeding their baby, taking handprints or footprints, no photographs by which to remember their baby. The difference between abortion and perinatal care in these circumstances is stark. No wonder research like that from Duke University in 2015 highlights that mothers who abort in these circumstances are twice as likely to experience depression and despair than those who bring their babies to term.**

Anencephaly is a serious life-limiting condition where part of the child’s skull and brain are missing. Around 72%* of these babies are born alive, however, and live for some time after birth. This time means everything to parents. Many parents have been incredibly brave in speaking out about the struggle they had to get the perinatal care they needed to parent their babies for as long as possible. The All-Ireland charity ‘Every Life Counts’ which provides support and information to parents in these difficult situations have had contact from five mothers over the last 4 months from the North of Ireland. In every instance these mothers attested that they had been advised by their doctors to travel to England for an abortion. Only one mother was referred to a specialist bereavement counsellor. These parents have never been given the equivalent platform by the BBC to speak about how much their babies’ lives meant to them, nor how difficult it is to constantly hear their babies being dehumanised and their conditions used to ram open the door to abortion on much wider terms.

No regard for disability discrimination
Northern Ireland should take notice that the effect of withdrawing legal protection from babies with disabilities has had a chilling outcome in other countries like the US and the UK. Over 90% of babies diagnosed with any disability are aborted legally up to birth. No pain relief is administered to these babies and no provision is made for the dignified burial of their remains.
Nonetheless, for the pro-choice lobby the gloves are off; Clare Bailey from the Green Party reiterated during the debate that the complete decriminalisation of abortion is now their clarion call. This would mean that the child in the womb, healthy or otherwise, would have no legal protection whatsoever in law. It seems ‘choice’ and ‘reproductive rights’ are all that matters: abortion on demand, no questions asked.
But surely, we need to ask questions when human life is at stake? When socio-economic reasons are cited for 98% of the 200,000 abortions which take place every year in the UK any civilised and compassionate society needs to ask, how can we help prevent this tragedy?

Aborting babies described as a “kindness”
Probably the most disturbing part of this Top Table debate was the fact that young pro-choice panellist, Toby Vincent, who was permitted to repeatedly interrupt the contributions of Peadar and myself, described abortion as ‘a kindness’ to babies who weren’t expected to live long after birth and suggested that abortion was needed to end their suffering and poor quality of life.

One might have thought that such chilling comments should have been challenged by Stephen Nolan himself or, at the very least, edited out of the final programme. They were not. Overall, what was clear throughout the debate, from Joel Scott and the other audience members, was that the next generation of young people are still thinking for themselves on this issue; they are doing their research and are not easily taken in by group-think and rhetoric. For those of us who have been engaged in the pro-life movement over the years this is good reason to hope.

This segment on Top Table starts at 15.53 and you can watch it here.

*Study finds 72% of babies with anencephaly are live born
A study of 211 pregnancies shows that 72% of babies with anencephaly were ‘live born’: of those, with most babies passing within 24 hours, while a small number lived for 6 days or more, with one baby living for 28 days. (British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 2006)

**Abortion after diagnosis of anencephaly shows significantly higher rates of depression and despair
Research from Duke University (2015) shows that women who have an abortion after a diagnosis of anencephaly are significantly more likely to suffer depression and despair. There appears to be a psychological benefit to women to continue the pregnancy following a diagnosis of a life-limiting condition. (Prenatal Diagnosis 2015)

Press Releases

Calls for complete decriminalisation of Northern Ireland’s abortion law are reckless and extreme.


Tracy Harkin, spokesperson for the Iona Institute NI, states “The pro choice lobby’s call for complete decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland is radical, reckless and chilling in the extreme. These calls have intensified this week as the Women and Equalities Commission begin their consultation into NI abortion law. Any legitimate consultation must not white wash the dire consequences this radical move would have.” She added, “Complete decriminalisation would make the unborn child in law a non-person with no legal protection throughout any stage of pregnancy. Decriminalisation would mean no protection against discrimination on grounds of disability or sex-selective abortion, no guidelines regarding pain relief for babies enduring late-term abortions, and no humane burial rights for babies’ remains.”

Tracy continues “Babies that may survive late-term abortions could legally be left to die. The pro choice lobby continually ignore these disturbing realities in pursuit of a radical ideology of ‘choice’ that has gotten completely out of control. If this consultation and the media reporting is to have any shred of balance over the next few days it would do well to ask pro choice advocates how on earth stripping the unborn child of all legal protections can be defended,” she said.

“As everyone knows laws have penalties because they seek to protect something or someone that is worth protecting. If Amnesty and others have their way it would mean that for the first time in Northern Ireland the offspring of wildlife would have more protection than human beings growing and kicking in their mother’s womb.” She added, “Surely a culture which upholds the life, health, and dignity of both mothers and their preborn babies is worth protecting.”

“The people of Northern Ireland have no desire for such an extreme measure. Tackling the socio-economic pressures on vulnerable pregnant women which propel most towards the tragedy of abortion should be our real focus.”