Public service dilemma of conscience versus bigotry
Wednesday February 21, 2007
My friend Brendan is a doctor, and a Catholic. I have another friend, also a Catholic, called Seamus, who is an adoption social worker in a Catholic agency. They have both been wrestling with their consciences in the past few weeks.
The NHS grants Brendan an exemption from performing abortions on the basis of his beliefs. And all three of us think that is absolutely right. On the other hand, the government has denied Catholic agencies an exemption from providing adoption services to gay couples. And we all think that’s right too. So when is conscience really conscience, and when is it just cover for bigotry?
Brendan was born in 1970 in the Falls Road in Belfast. He struggled hard through university and medical school in Northern Ireland, but came to England to practise because he thought it might be easier to deal with the contradictions of being Catholic and a doctor in an environment where religion mattered less.
But he couldn’t avoid being confronted with issues around euthanasia, which the Catholic catechism makes clear is “morally unacceptable”, or with pregnant teenagers, whose safety, health and future relied on being able to have their pregnancies terminated. Hippocrates helped Brendan with the first, as he simply followed BMA guidelines. With the second, he conscientiously objected, but fretted about it.
Seamus was born in Liverpool, but trained in the south and qualified in 1996. He is a very good social worker – none of that false empathy with the poor. His parents had nothing when he was a kid, and he brings that understanding to his work. Over time, he got more and more motivated by fostering and adoption, and the chance it gave children in terrible circumstances. He ended up working for a Catholic agency.
It is curious fact, but a logical extension of the Catholic view on abortion, that these agencies have become specialised in difficult and complex adoptions. He even placed several kids with individual gay people.
And that gave him an idea. He decided he wanted to adopt a child himself. He was very well qualified, he thought, and he had been in a stable relationship for a number of years … with Brendan.
That was when the inconsistencies started. He and Seamus had been drawn to each other partly because they were Catholic. But as their relationship developed, their commitment to each other was, in part, cemented by their commitment to public service. And the idea that they worked to provide a universal service without prejudice started to clash with what they were being told by the leaders of their faith. The faith exemption in relation to abortion was being used as a parallel to justify discrimination against them with regard to adoption, if they wanted to do it through a Catholic agency.
There was no argument with the hierarchy about gay parents. Even if they lost the fight with the government, as they did, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, and his colleagues would retain their prejudice. So why not recognise that, give Catholic agencies the exemption, and make them organise a referral policy. At least then gay people would be treated politely as they were turned away – a sort of “we’re bigots, but the people next door aren’t” policy.
There is a clear distinguishing principle between the two situations. With his conscience waiver on abortion, Brendan was never making a judgment about the girl or woman who was pregnant, only of her decision.
But if the adoption agencies were given an exemption, it would legitimise a judgment on gay people just for being gay, that they could therefore not be parents.
Now, as Catholics and as gay men, the law protects them from being discriminated against on either count. And the current joke is, of course, that when they do become parents it will be an immaculate conception – although no stretch of the imagination would ever classify either of them as virgins.
· Simon Fanshawe is a writer and broadcaster
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