Klaus Vella Bardon, a dentist and committed anti-abortionist, recently wrote an article (‘The Totalitarian Spectre’,  March 27) deploring a decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stifling “the attempt of two Swedish midwives to seek redress challenging their country’s court verdict that denied them the right to work because, as a matter of conscience, they refused to be involved with abortion”.

He drew a stark parallel between “the spectre of death from COVID-19 [that] paralyses so many people with the premonition of death” and abortion. He found it “ironic and distressing that in the Western world, that once boasted a Christian heritage, the assault on life intensifies”.

He said that in its ruling the ECHR played a legalistic game by deciding the midwives’ case was inadmissible, thus sidestepping “their responsibility to address the issue of conscientious objection”.

But he conceded that the court took into account Swedish legislation which requires an employee to perform all tasks falling within a midwife’s scope of work, including the requirement to take part in abortions prescribed by law.

He underlined that article 9 of the Human Rights Act specifically states that one has a right to freedom of thought, belief and religion.

The article concluded: “Such a ruling sends a message that any medical professional who respects human life may risk forfeiting his career, job and livelihood.” His peroration was striking: “This is a severe price to pay for living in accordance with one’s conscience.”

It was a vigorous and effective article written by somebody who expresses himself well and marshals his arguments on the subject of abortion cogently by his own lights.

But the most telling aspect of his criticism of the ECHR decision focussed on anger at the court for imposing such a severe penalty on the midwives for “living in accordance with [their] own conscience… [because] these corrosive developments that curtail freedom of conscience are increasing”.

Belief in freedom of conscience goes to the heart of western values and civilisation

As Vella Bardon rightly argues, freedom of conscience is the fundamental issue that should inform any debate on the issue of abortion.

The gravamen of his case rests on the right of all human beings to exercise their freedom of conscience.

Nobody would disagree.

It is also the central argument advanced by women the world over who exercise freedom of conscience in making an informed choice about what they may or may not do with their own bodies when it comes to having a child. Freedom of conscience gives women an intrinsic right to make a choice.

Freedom of conscience is also a right which the Roman Catholic Church recognises. The relevant aspect of its teaching is the Vatican Council’s declaration of religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, 55 years ago, which Vella Bardon implicitly supports.

This asserts that a person must not be prevented from acting according to conscience and should not be coerced into behaving in a manner contrary to his or her own belief. As one of Malta’s leading theologians put it: “While the Church is surely in duty bound to form consciences by proposing objective guidelines, she cannot coerce the individual conscience of its members, even when these take decisions that differ from the official Catholic teaching. Sin is a matter related to one’s own personal conscience.”

“When one makes a decision in conscience, seeking the truth, and the decision is different from what the Church teaches, one could say the individual is not in agreement with the Church’s teachings. But when we talk about sin, we’re talking about something between the individual and God, and that is something where we can’t play God ourselves”.

The determining factor has to be the requirements of justice informed by conscience, which applies to all, and not the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine on abortion, which may be preached to all but forced on none whose conscience it offends.

For doctrinal reasons Roman Catholics cannot accept abortion under any circumstances. It is a religious, faith-based view which is fully respected.

But that is a matter of private conviction. Roman Catholic believers have every right to abstain from practices their faith tells them are wrong. But they have no right of veto over others by imposing their morality on women regardless of what women’s own consciences tell them.

Imposing this doctrine by telling women what they can and cannot do with their own bodies is not of itself sufficient argument for society to prevent women - who may not hold the same views - from acknowledging that there may be circumstances when, in all conscience, a different choice may be made whether to have a child.

The moral argument is clear and irrefutable. Those women whose conscience leads them not to wish ever to have an abortion on religious grounds are not obliged to resort to it.

But those who, equally firmly, believe in the mother’s supreme right to exercise freedom of conscience – her informed sense of what is right or wrong, freely and conscientiously expressed – are entitled to make their own choice to have an abortion.

In the objective medical and social circumstances surrounding a woman’s pregnancy, acting within legally defined parameters, women should have the paramount right in all consciousness to exercise freedom of choice. Science, reason, conscience and choice should prevail.

Belief in freedom of conscience goes to the heart of Western values and civilisation. When it comes to freedom of conscience, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

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