Conscience doesn’t make cowards

02 November 2006


THE SUDDEN proposed courtship of abortion and politics was quickly turned down.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor noticed the glimmer of a debate in Michael Howard’s statement to Cosmopolitan about bringing down the upper limit for termination from 24 to 20 weeks ( News, 18 March). He suggested that it might be an election issue.

A flurry of excitement from the media brought predictable footage of right-wing extremism in the USA. But hardly had the researchers lined up religious interviewees before the “we-must-keep-religion-and-politics-separate” machine moved swiftly into action.

Abortion should not be an election issue, say the leaders, because it is a non-party issue, and a matter of conscience. The Church would clearly win more approval by not getting involved in the political realm, but by concentrating on Easter and getting its sermons right.

The matter has not quite gone away, however. Roman Catholic, Muslim and Jewish leaders are reported to have condemned Labour’s stance on abortion; and the RC Bishops have made it an issue in their General Election advice on voting.

For at least one Anglican, the political is also highly personal. Born with a cleft palate, the Revd Joanna Jepson is on strong ground when she counters some reasons that are said to justify late abortions. If they had been applied in her case, she would not be with us today.

Yet the swift response from political leaders suggests that the issue of what is and is not a matter of conscience is worth reflection. It is by no means obvious. It seems that fox-hunting is a party matter, and not a matter of conscience. The parties have given the debate an extraordinarily high proportion of parliamentary time. Unrestricted Sunday- trading and licensing hours were not matters of conscience, even though many argued that they should be.

Was the decision to go to war in Iraq a party or a conscience issue? The pressure on Labour MPs to toe the government line for invasion was considerable. Two cabinet ministers had to resign in order to give their consciences space to breathe. In fact, it seems there are few “issues of conscience” left in politics.

Yet can conscience be excluded from pensions, aid, taxes, going to war, or misrepresenting the opposition? Obviously not. MPs often say that their consciences prevail on all issues. Even the party line, we hope, is also one where moral judgement operates. So, in the case of abortion, the sudden appeal to conscience, or, more accurately, away from conscience, seems to hold little water.

The sad thing was that abortion and euthanasia used to be the only issues on which Christian conscience was normally expressed politically. As we are slowly discovering, there are many issues — war, poverty, pollution, debt, aid, family life — where a Christian conscience might well shake the consensus.

Christians might, in conscience, want double pay for people who are required to work on Sundays; or the same support for stay-at-home parents as child-care ones; or the enforcement of a treaty on bribery we signed in 1997; or an end to the arms trade; or the removal of advertisements from children’s TV programmes; or an end to the special relationship with the Superpower; or pre-election information on what the advice from the Attorney General was on the Iraq war.

Politicians could be surprised by what Christian voters might want, if their consciences were expressed in current debates. They might even realise that there is no conceivable reason for excluding any issue of conscience and Christian perspective from the election campaign.

Dr Elaine Storkey is Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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