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2012 Bishop's Annual Appeal

Conscience in the Roman Catholic Teaching and the New England Journal of Medicine

Conscience formation

Lisa Harris, MD, PhD (Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Department of Women's Studies, the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, and the Program for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Justice, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) has written an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in which she asserts that both the refusal to perform abortions and the insistence to provide them are both matters of conscience. Those who refuse to perform or provide abortions cannot therefore, claim a moral high ground, since those who provide them may be doing so because of deeply held moral beliefs.

Dr. Harris uses "conscientious" and "conscience" almost interchangeably throughout the article and appears to take the definition of either to mean a deeply held, core belief. She does note that our culture does not have an agreed upon understanding of just what exactly conscience means. It is not surprising then, that there is much confusion about it in the law. 

While I suppose some of those who trafficked in human slavery might have been violating their own core beliefs about the sanctity of life for economic gain or fear of social disapproval, it is safe to assume that others had strong, "conscientious" feelings about slavery on both sides. Slavery, however, was legal in many countries for many years.  Were slave owners and abolitionists each entitled to their views "in conscience?" Was it simply a political decision to define a slave as someone's property? 

Buying and selling human persons cannot be excused because someone feels strongly that it is morally right, even strongly enough to risk imprisonment or execution. While it was legal, it was morally wrong and persons who made a concientious decision that it was permitted made a mistake in conscience.

That's the important point for modern persons: our consciences can be wrong. They can be wrong if we are ill informed about an issue, illogical, acting out of selfish motives, or fail to take adequate time, prayer and moral advice before forming them. Catholic conscience formation relies heavily on incorporating the moral teaching authority of the Church's tradition and natural law. In Catholic teaching it is said that our conscience is inviolable, but not inerrant. We must follow our well-formed conscience, but admit that a decision made in conscience might be in error.

 While it is politically acceptable to argue for abortion as a legal extension of a woman's right to control her own body, it is hard to understand how a strongly held belief that a woman should control her own body extends to killing outright any child born alive from an abortion procedure. Surely there could have been moral agreement about that. Insistence that the child be dead, not adopted or otherwise cared for, even at public expense, defies logic.

Dr. Harris doesn't mention conscientious objection relative to involuntary conscription, military service or killing in wars, remarking instead that conscientious objection and the anti-abortion movement grew up together. Dr. Harris is surely correct that there is no agreement as to what "conscience" means in our culture, but neither is there consensus on "personhood," "marriage," or a host of other moral issues today. If the concept of natural law is rejected there is little hope there will be such consensus soon.


Recognizing Conscience in Abortion Provision in the New England Journal of Medicine