What does ‘Freedom of Conscience’ really mean?

This week our guest blogger, Fr Darren Brennan explores the Christian understanding of conscience and free will.

The Catholic understanding of conscience is based on its understanding of the human person as an incarnate spirit open to truth and goodness. Indeed, the human person aspires toward truth and goodness (or ‘true goodness’) as toward an infinite horizon and is fulfilled to the degree in which it does so successfully through the correct use of free will. Some would define free will as the capacity to choose between good and evil. This is false. As creatures essentially ‘wired’ to attain fulfilment through true goodness, free will is our ability to self-determine our course toward this fulfilment by means of the choices, big and small, that define us as moral beings in this world. In other words, the exercise of our free will is always geared toward the good or, at least, what we perceive to be good. This is an important distinction, because ‘what I perceive’ to be a good choice may not, in fact, be truly good; it may actually be objectively evil. Nevertheless, because I cannot choose to say, do or even think something unless I perceive some goodness in it, my mind will bring me to focus on the aspects of the choice which appeal to me, which I perceive as good. This, of course, is the essence of temptation. I’m lying in bed and the alarm goes off. I know I should get up, but I really don’t want to…. So Immediately I begin to think of all the reasons why it’s alright for me to sleep on for another ten minutes or so… There are countless examples of how our intellect and our will scheme together in this way in order to ‘justify’ a choice which is neither objectively good nor true.

This is where conscience comes in. Almost as a fail-safe to counteract this wayward tendency of our obscured intellects and weak wills,

…each one of us as a human person is endowed with a moral conscience, an inner sense of the objective goodness, or lack thereof, of our choices. In paragraph 1777 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church the moral conscience is described as: ‘A judgement of reason whereby the human person recognises the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.’ Here the obligatory nature of the conscience’s demands is underlined. This absolute and almost intransigent command of the conscience was described by Immanuel Kant as a ‘categorical imperative’. In other words, as an absolute command. We do not experience the demands of conscience as mere suggestions i.e., ‘It might be good if you do this, you might want to avoid that’, but as commands i.e., ‘You must do good and avoid evil’. This is why the moral conscience has often been described as the voice of God within our hearts. Cfr Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1776: Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…

For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (CCC 1777, 47)

Moral conscience “present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” (CCC 1777, 48-49)

Forming our conscience

The catechism goes on to insist on the paramount importance of forming our consciences. This is because, through bad examples, negative childhood experiences and, above all, attachment to forms of behaviour that are objectively evil, our consciences can become deformed, lax, numbed, dormant… they no longer seem to put up a fight or resist the evil of our actions.

From a moral point of view this is an extremely dire state of affairs as the individual becomes like a rudderless ship, moved here and there by his or her passions of the moment, or by the whims of social conformity and political correctness.

On the contrary, the person who endeavours to form their conscience by adhering to the commandments and forming virtue i.e., habits of good, honest and upright behaviour that define a person as morally good, will be blessed with a healthy, delicate conscience which will offer continual guidance, clarity and correction when necessary. Lastly, it goes without saying that each individual member of the human race, just as he/she is compelled to form their conscience according to the objective standard of the natural law and the revealed law (the Ten Commandments), is equally compelled to obey the dictates of their conscience whenever it insists on a particular choice and course of action in such a way that non-compliance would be experienced as a serious moral evil.

Primacy of conscience

This is what is sometimes referred to as the ‘primacy of conscience’ and forms the philosophical base for the fundamental human right of conscientious objection. Certainly, this should not be understood as the subjectification of the moral law, as though each individual’s conscience were to be considered above and beyond the objective law, but rather that, once the conscience has been properly informed, the individual is morally compelled to obey its dictates, because we must do what is right and we must avoid what is evil. Any government, state or company etc. that denies the reasonable right to conscientious objection becomes, by definition, a draconian oppressor of humanity.

Fr Darren Brennan is a priest in the Diocese of Down and Connor.


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.”



Response to the Consultation of the Women and Equalities Committee on Northern Ireland and Abortion

An unjustified interference

Abortion is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly which  voted on the issue in February 2016, shortly before it last sat.[1] The NI Assembly rejected a liberalisation of our law on abortion. It is totally inappropriate for MPs from other jurisdictions, in a committee which does not include one NI MP, to instruct or dictate how Northern Ireland should conduct its own affairs. It is an internal matter for Northern Ireland, which requires the input of people from Northern Ireland.


The Abortion Act 1967 does not apply in Northern Ireland because the democratically elected Members of the Legislative Assembly have not voted in favour of its extension. Indeed the SDLP, which is a sister party of the Labour party still describes itself as a pro-life party and its members continue to state that it has no desire to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.[2] Other political parties including the two with the largest mandate in Northern Ireland  i.e. the DUP and Sinn Fein, have, to date, stood for election to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliament on the basis of being against the extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. However since the last Westminster elections, Sinn Fein has officially altered its view on abortion, to supporting abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.[3] The pro-abortion policy has not been universally welcomed by many Sinn Fein members. Two Sinn Fein TDs in the Republic of Ireland’s Dail were recently disciplined by Sinn Fein because of their pro-life stance. Both have now resigned from Sinn Fein and one of them, Peadar Toibin TD and other dissenting pro-life Republicans throughout Ireland are in the process of setting up a new pro-life republican party which is already attracting significant interest both North and South of the border. The grass roots group Cherish all the Children Equally has been instrumental in highlighting the rights of the unborn child and its mother in the Republican community. It was set up by Anne Brolly, a former Sinn Fein mayor and her husband a former Sinn Fein MLA along with GP Dr Anne McCloskey who has more than thirty years of experience of delivering positive health care to her community in Derry.

It is disappointing for women in Northern Ireland who support life at every stage, to see the UK  Labour party which does not operate in Northern Ireland and the Conservative party which has an almost negligible level of support, attempting to change our protective laws which value the lives of women and babies and seek to do the best for both. It is arrogant in the extreme for either of these party groupings to presume or predetermine what is “best for Northern Ireland women” or citizens more generally.

Effect of the Abortion Act 1967

Since abortion was legalised in England and Wales, just over 50 years ago,  there have been over 8.8 million abortions – the equivalent of the entire population of  London. This translates to 1 in 5 pregnancies ending in abortion[4] and an abortion every three minutes.[5] Abortion is no longer an exceptional response to a crisis, as is evidenced by the fact that 39%(**) of lawful abortions in England and Wales in 2017 were repeat abortions.[6] Surely there must be a better, kinder, way for women, babies and families in crisis than a default assumption that abortion solves the problem.

Repercussions from the Repeal of the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland

This year we in Northern Ireland have watched the repercussions from the repeal of the 8th amendment. Many in Northern Ireland were supportive of that amendment. We were aware that in a jurisdiction where both lives matter, there is a corresponding beneficial effect on the standard of care for both mother and baby. It should be noted that the Republic of Ireland has a much better maternal mortality rate than 86% of countries investigated by WHO.[7] Significantly it outperforms the US and the UK, which each have very permissive abortion regimes. In the UK 1 in 5 pregnancies result in abortion- almost 200 000 annually,[8] 98% of which are under Ground C[9] (specifically, the mental health ground) which permits abortion where the continuation of the pregnancy would pose greater risk to the woman’s mental health than abortion. These are not the exceptional or “difficult” cases which the public are constantly confronted with as grounds for change. Furthermore the exceptional or “difficult” cases all involve a human life which can be cherished by affording proper perinatal hospice care or additional medical and practical assistance to a distressed mother who has been the victim of sexual crime.

Frequently those supporting relaxation of the law on abortion and in particular the repeal of the 8th amendment suggested that only a small change is proposed. Even  Lord Steele who introduced the Abortion Bill in 1967 did not anticipate the level of abortion that would result in his change in the law.[10] During the campaign for the repeal of the 8th amendment in the Republic of Ireland emphasis was laid on allowing abortion in cases where the baby was diagnosed with a life limiting condition (cruelly described as “fatal foetal abnormality”) or had been conceived as a result of rape or incest. The bill which has just been debated and passed by the Dail is much more far-reaching than this. It allows abortion for any reason in the first trimester and up until birth for disability or emergency situations.[11] It is fair to claim that this was not what the general populace who voted Yes to repeal anticipated.[12]

Abortion and mental health

Women from organisations such as Women Hurt by Abortion speak eloquently of the devastating long-term effect of abortion on the mental health of women. What research has been done in this area to avoid a legacy of mental health problems among an ever-increasing number of women? Why do so many women in Great Britain in the age group 16-24 have significant mental health concerns?[13] If the Women and Equalities Commission were truly interested in finding out how to improve the lives of women they would seek to examine the effect of abortion on the lives of generations of UK women who now resort to abortion as  the first solution to an unwanted pregnancy as is evidenced by the 39%(**) repeat abortions last year.


Ideas have consequences, and liberalising our abortion law will inevitably result in unintended consequences with irreversible and damaging social repercussions. Why should very ill or disabled babies in utero, or those whose father is a rapist  have a lesser chance at life than any other unborn baby? Surely this is discrimination against the most vulnerable?

Many women and mothers in Northern Ireland have worked tirelessly to support the right to life of the most vulnerable from womb to tomb. These women believe that mothers’ lives matter too. We know that it is the natural instinct of mothers to want nothing but the best for their children, born and unborn. Mothers need support and assistance during pregnancy, not abortion as the first solution in a crisis. The consciences of many in Great Britain have been dulled and inured to abortion. Listen to those who still value life at every stage. Maybe you will come to realise that we are offering a more progressive solution than what is currently offered in Great Britain. Our voices deserve to be heard too and we are grateful to be able to contribute to this consultation.

(**) This figure was correct at the time of submission (10 December 2018). The following day 11th December 2018, the UK Government revised the figure downwards when it released Abortion Statistics for England and Wales 2017 (June 2018 (revised December 2018), page 4. See:





[4] 190406 abortions were carried out in England and Wales in 2016 as reported in  Of these , 185 596 were on residents of England and Wales. There were 696271 live births in England and Wales in 2016 see

[5] As reported by Lord David Alton in a speech given at St Bride’s Hall, Belfast on January 25th 2018

[6], p4



[9] paras  2.13-2.17

[10] “…he never anticipated “anything like” the current number of terminations when leading the campaign for reform.”