Anna Krohn: Swamped in secularist dogmatism

25 Feb 2009

By The Record

Since the passage of Victoria’s oppressive Abortion Law Reform Act (2008), real uncertainty has haunted doctors, students, nurses and pharmacists who have both professional and moral concerns about their co-operation and involvement in induced abortion.

Bishop Anthony Fisher OP

The Act was recently described as creating “a destabilisation of the ethos of every medical setting” by Professor Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of Australian Catholic University and senior academic in public and Constitutional law.
The Abortion Act, Professor Craven said, marked a dangerous “tectonic shift” in the legal climate.  It, along with other Victorian legislation such as the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, established a platform in which so-called “secular rights” (such as “equal opportunity rights”) would trump all other “rights” to conscience and belief.
Every clause of the Victorian Abortion Act, he continued, from its specious mandating of abortion “referrals” to its concept of “emergency”, was designed to discount all professional opposition to the provision of an abortion, whether on moral, faith-based or medical grounds.
Professor Craven highlighted the significance of the Abortion Act victory for every other area of the life “ethics” debate. Since aggressively secularist academics, lobbyists and reformers were so dominant in the drafting, interpreting and implementing of rights “talk” (as opposed to the parliamentarians who merely vote for legislation), Professor Craven also expressed serious doubts that the proposed bill for religious freedom would provide anything of the sort.
Professor Craven’s vigorous observations formed part of the final session of the Fifth Annual Bioethics Colloquium held in Melbourne recently.   His address was followed by the equally sobering ethical analysis of “conscientious objection” by the bioethicist-Bishop Anthony Fisher OP and by Dr Eamonn Mathieson, President of the Catholic Doctors’ Association of Victoria.
Bishop Fisher reviewed the Biblical and Christian teaching on the central place of conscience in mediating universal moral truth to both persons and professions.  He began with the moving Biblical example of the “elderly man of noble bearing named Eleazar” (2 Macc 6:1-31) who was put to death for his moral courage.
Conscientious resistance to evil is not, he noted, merely the luxury of liberal “option” or privilege but a moral duty. 
Conscience in this full sense represents the inviolable moral and personal core of each person. Many 20th century liberal philosophers, such as Ronald Dworkin, have attempted to echo this aspect of moral integrity.
However, Bishop Fisher warned that old-fashioned liberal respect for the “sacredness” of conscience (or life) was fast giving way to cultural forces of absolutism, rampant consumerist demand and “secularist dogmatism.”
Dr Eamonn Mathieson gave a detailed account of his concerns about the new national Code of Ethics for doctors which is destined to be enforced by each State Medical Board.
Illustrating his case from the text of the proposed Code, Dr Mathieson argued that changes threaten to override the traditional values of “good” medical practice in the name of neutrality, tolerance and patient “lifestyle choice”.
He also considered that taken against the backdrop of the cultural and legal changes noted by Professor Craven and Bishop Anthony, the Code’s clauses would not only deny conscientious objection they could well justify serious punitive sanctions throughout those in the healthcare profession who offer conscientious dissent.  He noted how often the advisory word “should” had been replaced in the new Code by the imperative “must”.
The Colloquium is an important and annual event which brings together health professionals, administrators and ethicists to debate key ethical questions.  This year it was sponsored by the Australian Catholic University, the Australian Association of the Order of Malta and the  John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.
For copies of many of the papers presented at the Colloquium and for other details see the website: