On holiday last week I got into conversation with an atheist friend. The subject of abortion came up and whether a doctor or nurse has a right in conscience to refuse to participate in such a “procedure.” I cited the recent case of a prominent Polish Catholic doctor who had refused to perform an abortion. My atheist friend was annoyed. “What do you mean, he refused?” he said. “If it’s the law he has to comply with it.” By way of bolstering his argument he added, “Don’t doctors know that performing abortions is just part of their job?”
I countered this by saying that saving life and healing the sick was intrinsic to practising medicine; performing abortions wasn’t; indeed, the law of 1967 permitting it had run counter to all traditional notions of medicine from the Hippocratic Oath onwards. I added that I had read that many new medical graduates are now refusing to do abortions – not for religious reasons but because it wasn’t what they thought doctoring should be about. I added that this made medicine quite different from e.g. conscientious object in war: being prepared to kill the enemy was intrinsic to soldiering; if you were a pacifist you would know this, so you would refuse to join up on conscientious grounds.
Interestingly, the atheist accepted conscientious objection in this instance, but was still unhappy about what being a doctor implied: saving life rather than deliberately taking it. It struck me that he is a representative member of modern society: if the law says something is legal that makes it acceptable and you have no right to argue against it (I also think that there might also have been a slight prejudice against Catholicism on his part, lurking in the background).
I then thought of a clinching argument: my atheist friend is also a Jew, who lost family members in the Holocaust. I asked him what he thought of the laws against Jews in Germany in the 1930s. Did he not think they were unjust and that people therefore had the right to disobey them? He conceded, agreeing that “just because something is legal, it doesn’t always make it right”. Our disagreement was resolved without rancour and reminded me that so much of what constitutes public and dearly held opinion on the subject of abortion is decided without thought, reason or understanding.
The case I was referring to is described by Hilary White in LifeSiteNews for 10 July. It caught my attention because I hadn’t been aware that abortion is now legal in Poland under certain circumstances. The doctor in question is Dr Bogdan Chazan, formerly professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at Holy Family hospital in Warsaw. He was sacked from his position and fined 70,000 zlotys ($17,000) for reportedly refusing to help a woman have an abortion and also for refusing to inform her how she could have the abortion. The baby, who had been diagnosed with brain defects and who was conceived through IVF, later died. The Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, approved the action of the Mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, against Dr Chazan on the grounds that “Regardless of what his conscience is telling him, [a doctor] must carry out the law. Every patient must be sure that…the doctor will perform all procedures in accordance with the law and in accordance with his duties.” It could have been my atheist friend speaking.
Dr Chazan is being supported by the Polish legal institute Ordo Iuris which stated that “The doctor has two patients – mother and child. Diagnosis of the child must be carried out until the child is alive. The purpose of diagnosis is not finding evidence for abortion; its purpose is first aid, including support for the child, even if it may die soon after birth.” Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw also supported Dr Chazan, stating that the right to exercise one’s conscience is “one of the basic human rights” and that the decision to sack him is “a dangerous precedent, violating the rights of all people, not just Catholics.”
If doctors in a formerly staunchly religious country like Poland are now vulnerable to unjust laws, how much harder will the struggle become over here between the rights of conscience and the law. On Sunday our parish priest (a Pole, incidentally) preached eloquently against Lord Falconer’s assisted suicide Bill, due to receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords this coming Friday. He urged us to write to members of the Lords and, if possible, join in the protest outside the House of Lords on Friday. Many people have argued and written eloquently against this proposed Bill. I would add that if it became law, it would put conscientious pro-life doctors and nurses in an impossible position. I anticipate more arguments with my atheist friend.