As Christians, we are called to respect the governing authorities as they are instituted by God himself (Romans 13:1,2). But are there limits? What should we do if they try to force us to do something we believe is wrong?
The ‘Free Conscience’ campaign, launched this week with the backing of many Christian groups, supports Baroness O’Loan’s Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill which passed its second reading (debate stage) in the House of Lords on Friday 26 January. It is now set for a Committee of the Whole House where amendments can be submitted and debated. If it then passes a third reading it will pass to the House of Commons.
The bill aims to strengthen the conscience rights of healthcare professionals who believe it would be wrong to be involved in three specific activities – abortion, activities under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 (like embryo research or egg donation) and withdrawal of life-preserving treatment.
Currently, the law offers general conscience protection. The Equality Act 2010 includes religion and belief as two of nine ‘protected characteristics’ and the Human Rights Act 1998, which brought the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ (article 9). But these rights are limited.
When it comes to specific protections the situation is much less clear and statute law currently only applies to abortion and activities under HFE Act. For abortion its scope is very limited.
In 2014 the Supreme Court ruled that two Glasgow midwives, who were working as labour ward coordinators, could not opt out of supervising abortions. It said that the conscience clause in the Abortion Act 1967 only applied to those who were directly involved in abortion and not to those involved in delegation, planning, supervision and support. This left many health professionals vulnerable to coercion.
Overall 25 peers spoke in the debate – 13 for and 11 against with the government responding. Labour health spokesperson Baroness Thornton made it clear that the Labour party would oppose the bill and Liberal Democrat Baroness Barker said that most of her party colleagues shared her strong opposition also. The government itself will allow a conscience vote.
The major arguments against the bill were that it expanded the scope of the conscience clause to cover health professionals only indirectly involved in the activity concerned and expanded the number of activities protected. This, they claimed, would hinder access to patient care. Several peers also suggested that there should be a duty for professionals claiming conscience protection to refer the patient to someone who would comply.
Supporters of the bill will need to address these specific concerns convincingly at committee stage if the bill is to proceed.
As Christian citizens we must respect those who rule over us but the Bible is equally clear that if discriminatory laws are passed, and obeying such laws involves disobeying God, then our higher duty is to obey God. If you love me you will obey me, says Jesus (John 14:15).
When the King of Egypt ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew children they refused to do so and God commended and rewarded them (Exodus 1:15-22).
A fiery furnace did not stop Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow down to the image of the king and a lions’ den did not deter Daniel from persisting with public prayer (Daniel 3:16-18, 6:1-10).
When Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish authorities not to preach the Gospel they replied, 'We must obey God rather than men' and continued to do it (Acts 5:29).
Of course, we should also do our best to oppose the passing of laws which seek to criminalise normal Christian behaviour which is what Baroness O’Loan’s bill is all about. We can thank God that in Britain we still have the democratic right to participate in shaping public policy.
Freedom of conscience is not a minor or peripheral issue and it is not only Christians who are affected. It goes to the heart of healthcare practice as a moral activity. Current UK law and professional guidelines respect the right of doctors to refuse to engage in certain procedures to which they have a conscientious objection.
The right of conscience helps to preserve the moral integrity of the individual clinician, preserves the distinctive characteristics and reputation of medicine as a profession, acts as a safeguard against coercive state power, and provides protection from discrimination for those with minority ethical beliefs.
It is worth fighting for. Christians can get involved through the Free Conscience website which will tell you how to contact your MP and encourage them to support the bill. But it will first need to clear the House of Lords.