Page 5, 14th February 1969

14th February 1969
Page 5
Page 5, 14th February 1969 — The conscience clause and abortion

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Organisations: National Health Service


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The conscience clause and abortion

by Norman St. John-Stevas .

0 THE national scandal of THE

the abortion ..ituation 0 e is making the subject once more a topic of discussion 0 0 throughout Britain. I 0 dealt with the general

situation under the Abor

tion Act last month and 0 since then my article has

been quoted in many .4., n e w s papers throughout /

/ / / the country.

In the article I stressed 0 the importance of Catho0 lic members of the medi$1 caI profession standing

firm upon their rights under the law and refusing $1 to take part in operations to which they had eon/ scientious objections. tine' fortunately a misleading and inaccurate letter from / .,.. a Dr. Cronin, a retired general practitioner in Bir

5'...' minham, on the scope of the g conscience clause, was published in the CATHOLIC HERALD last week.

0" The erroneous state

ments .,:." contained in the letter may lead to doctors and nurses weakening in

... their resolve to resist abort tion, and I therefore return to the subject in some de0

0 tail week. Dr. Cin .

/ statesthis in his letter thatron the ..'4 conscience clause is "spe


I eificallly restricted to hos 0 0 pital doctors." This is / totally wrong.


0 I give now for the guidance of doctors and even more of nurses who may not have access to libraries, etc., the full text of the conscience clause as set out in clause 4 of the Abortion Act. ..1 "4.—(1) Subject to sub

s' section (2) of this section,

04. no person shall be under

0 / any duty. whether by cons,/ e tract or by any statutory or

5:, other legal requirement, to

0 participate in any treatment e

.1• authorised by this Act to 0 0 which he has a conscientious objection:

0' / "Provided that in any

0 legal proceedings the bur r.; den of proof of conscien tious objection shall rest on the person claiming to rely f.% on it. "(2) Nothing in subsection (1) of this section .; / shall affect any duty to participate in treatment which

11 is necessary to save the life /

0 or to prevent grave perma

04 vent injury to the physical /

5 or mental health of a pregnant woman."

0 That is the whole of the 0

0 conscience clause, and it can 0/ thus be seen to be of wide scope. First, it applies to all 0

doctors. all nurses, all assis i': tants, medical students. etc., anywhere, whether they be

0 employed in hospitals, nurs/ 0 ing homes, or arc merely 0

„easesseeee. XXXX

practising under the National Health Service. Cronin is once again wrong when he states that every G.P. by the terms of his contract with the National Health Service must provide all medical attention required by patients on his list and adds, This will include legal abortion." . Without the conscience clause Dr. Cronin might be right (although even that is not certain), but the clause as drafted specifically cancels out the effect of any statutory duty under the Health Service. A doctor is thus under no risk of legal action if he refuses to carry out an abortion in normal circumstances. This defence covers "any treatment authorised by this Act" and therefore covers abortion on health grounds, on eugenic grounds, and on social grounds. It covers abortions which were legal before the Act and those legalised after it. My statement is subject, of course, to the exception set out in the conscience clause that it does not affect the duty to participate in treatment "which is necessary to save the life or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman." This part of the conscience clause was opposed by me and added by the sponsors of the Bill. It was intended to cover situations where, for example, only a Catholic gynaecologist was available in an emergency and hence a woman might be denied treatment and die or be badly injured. It should be noted that this proviso merely throws the position back to that of common law before the passing of the Act and prevents the clear words of the conscience clause applying in this particular case. It may well be that even in this case a doctor who has moral objections to abortion would not be liable for refusing to carry out the operation. We simply do not know since a case has never come before the courts. The correct legal course for a Catholic doctor to follow in such a case is to refer the patient to another doctor. He is not under a legal obligation to find another doctor who will carry out the abortion but should find the patient alternative medical care. It is my submission that this is his moral duty as well, since the conscience to be applied is not only his but the patient's. In all but the gravest emergencies the legal risk to the doctor or nurse is then likely to be an academic one. No doctor or nurse should be discouraged by Dr. Cronin's misleading jeremiad from following his conscience and exercising his legal rights.

TWO other correspondents raise points which need brief answers. First, Mrs. Morris, who kindly acknowledges my prophetic role in this column, asks where part-time priests can be found who will have time to exercise their priestly functions and suggests that "Alice in Wonderland" could provide the answer. No, Mrs. Morris, not Ain-W but St. Paul can respond to your query. St. Paul was a tentmaker, and although at times supported by the faithful he at other times supported himself and boasted about it tool Mr. Mercer is back again and says that if I am right in saying a priest should be permitted to give his own personal views on contraception in the confessional then why not freedom to advocate abortion or euthanasia? The answer is a simple one. Contraception is not and cannot be part of the revealed truth of religion. The condemnation of euthanasia and abortion is implied in the revealed commandment "Thou shalt not kill." Their condemnation can thus he said to be part of revealed morals. Mr. Mercer also confuses the teaching of the Church with that of the Pope. The views of Paul VI on contraception are known to us through Humanae Vitae, but we cannot say as yet whether these will become the views of the Church, nor in what

way will be modified.

A priest in the confessional is, of course, not free to give out any crackbrained idea of his own on contraception, but he is entitled to set the encyclical in the framework of the continuing discussion and dialogue and indicate his views. The ultimate decision is not, however, that of the priest but of the penitent, as Cardinal Heenan made clear on the Frost programme.

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