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How Queensland’s abortion laws deny conscientious objection

22 October 2018

12:44 PM

22 October 2018

12:44 PM

In new legislation are contained provisions that cut to the core of liberal democracy, Doctors in Queensland are now compelled to participate in the provision of abortion services regardless of their professional opinion. These provisions are a disgrace and an affront to civilised institutions and must be repealed immediately.

In the civilised world, being an accessory to murder is a crime considered almost as serious as murder itself. Not content to merely break this great and civilised tradition, the State of Queensland now compels doctors to act as an accessory to what they may consider murder. It does not excuse, it compels.

This might sound like madness and indeed it is deeply troubling. But it is true.  You might not have noticed amidst the reporting of the decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland that the ABC, and virtually every other mainstream news outlet, failed to mention a deeply troubling provision in the Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018 (Qld). One can only speculate as to why the public was not informed of the true contents of the bill, which went well beyond the mere decriminalisation of abortion.

Section 8 states that if a doctor has a conscientious objection to providing any service relating to the termination of a pregnancy, they must make that known to the person requesting those services and either refer or transfer the case to a doctor who they believe will provide the service. This includes the termination itself or providing any advice relating to the termination. The appallingly drafted section 9 then appears to make provision for a doctor who does not comply with this to be referred to disciplinary procedures.

Now consider the following: a doctor is consulted by someone seeking an abortion but believes in their professional opinion that terminating a fetus is taking a human life. The state of Queensland compels them to now be an accessory to the taking of that human life by requiring that doctor to refer or transfer them to someone who will take it. The State of Queensland compels them to now be an accessory to what they consider to be murder. Respectful, and indeed compassionate abstention is not an option. Compliance and participation are mandatory.

Regardless of what one believes concerning the underlying morality of abortion and the stance one takes on its decriminalisation, this ought to be deeply troubling. Indeed, the Pseudonyms are broadly in favour of decriminalisation and the returning of this question to individuals and doctors to resolve. But going far beyond this and compelling doctors to participate regardless of their professional opinion is deeply morally repugnant and cuts against the very core of liberal democracy in the civilised world.

The Queensland government’s attack on the core institutions of liberal democracy with these provisions cuts far deeper than some current debates. This isn’t about being compelled to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. This isn’t about freedom of speech. This isn’t about paying taxes to fund core government services. This is about the ability of people who take an oath to do no harm to abstain from participating in a process that they may consider will lead to the termination of a human life.

This attack on liberal democratic institutions goes deeper than that about which John Stuart Mill or John Locke wrote. This is not about the freedom to speak. This is not about the freedom to dispense with one’s life, liberty and property. This is about one’s ability to act in a manner consistent with virtue. The Queensland government’s attack on the core institutions of liberal democracy goes right down to the very foundation of its thought: Aristotle.

Aristotle holds in The Politics, that the virtuous state is the one that promotes the ability of its citizens to live according to virtue. The citizen, according to The Nichomachean Ethics, lives according to virtue insofar as they act in a manner that is consistent with their knowledge of the good and the just and does not act in a manner that contradicts their knowledge of the good and just. Included within what Aristotle considers to be knowledge of the good and the just is what we would today call professional opinion and professional ethics.

About professional opinion and ethics, there can be much debate, indeed irreconcilable debate. This is why Karl Popper wrote of the importance of an “open society” in which differences of professional opinion and ethics were respected, along with the right of the individual to act or particularly to abstain in accordance with them. We cannot know a priori what is right and what is just, and only the supreme and dangerous arrogance of the totalitarian decides to compel all others to bend to their vision. It is sobering to remember that Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, was mounting an impassioned defence of liberal democracy against the despicable despotic tyrannies of the Nazis, the Fascists, the Socialists, and the Communists.

The Queensland government has assumed the supreme arrogance of the totalitarian and decided to place its opinion and ethics above all others and prohibits even abstention from acting in accordance with it. The best argument that the government could mount is that a doctor’s abstention could create additional distress for the person seeking an abortion. This might be so, however, it does not follow that this distress justifies compelling a doctor to participate in a process, which, in their professional opinion, leads to the termination of a human life. This is all the more so as there are any number of alternative means of mitigating this distress without compelling a doctor to act against their professional opinion and ethics, thereby destabilising a core institution of civilised society.

The Queensland government’s arrogance will have a poignant and immediate human cost. It was not for no reason that Aristotle believed in the importance of acting in accordance with virtue. To act against virtue, to act against one’s knowledge of what is just and good, to act against one’s professional opinion and ethics is to debase oneself and to erode the value of one’s life. As Shakespeare said: “things outward do draw the inward quality with them”. To act counter to one’s ethics comes with a terrible cost. The Queensland government has decided that others must carry that cost by refusing to allow them even to abstain from acting in a contrary manner to their ethics.

This is not about the broader bill. This argument has no bearing on the validity of decriminalisation, nor any of its other provisions. Indeed, the Pseudonym Family are broadly in favour of decriminalisation and the returning of this question to individuals and doctors to resolve. This is about compelling someone to participate in what they may believe to be murder and to forbid them to respectfully, even compassionately, abstain.

Sections 8 and 9 of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill are a disgrace and affront to liberal democracy. They have no place in a civilised society. They must be immediately repealed and failing that, we call on the Governor of Queensland to exercise the viceregal prerogative to defend the most vital of civilised institutions.

The authors of this article are a Queensland professional couple who have to remain pseudonymous in this debate. 

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