Many say the Canadian election last month achieved nothing, that the country is back to where it was before. There’s a lot of truth to this statement. The new seating map for Canada’s Parliament is almost a carbon copy of the old one.
But the election was far from inconsequential. The conscience rights of doctors suffered a major blow. During the campaign, every major national party in Canada refused to support doctors who decline to refer for procedures they consider harmful to patients or third parties.
Canada’s political leaders, it seems, have much to learn about freedom of conscience. I suspect the same is true of many politicians in the United States and elsewhere.
Moral and ethical reflection, making normative sense of the world and striving to live accordingly, is an essential part of being human. We all have a conscience: an inner radar that alerts us to right and wrong action. And we all wish to have the freedom to stand on our core convictions if push ever comes to shove. Yet, despite the value that all of us place on being free to follow our conscience, especially when we find ourselves in ethical minefields, this human right has been paid scant attention by courts and legislatures. Perhaps all of us, to varying degrees, have taken it for granted.
This neglect is costing us. If there is one form of freedom on which a liberal democracy stands or falls, it is the freedom to live in alignment with our core convictions, whether ethical, religious, or political. Yet the once-settled principle that we should not force others to betray their conscience—unless there is a compelling reason to do so—is being diluted across our society. This trend is troubling, and not only because of the harm to persons who violate their core convictions. Stifling conscience rights makes it harder to achieve the kind of society we say we want: one that is inclusive, free, diverse, and democratic.
Guarding freedom of conscience from unwarranted limitation not only respects the dignity of citizens by permitting them to exercise their moral agency. It also ensures that matters of conscience can be openly and fairly treated in the public square and the halls of power. If we care about good governance, making ample room for conscientious expression is vital to this endeavor. To suppress this form of expression is to deny a hallmark of the society we claim to be. Whenever freedom of conscience is attacked, the ground beneath a liberal democracy shakes.
Public leaders need to better grasp the role that conscience rights play in a free and democratic society. If they do not, freedom of conscience and the kind of society we cherish will eventually disappear.
The State Must Take Freedom of Conscience Seriously
The status of freedom of conscience, the storms that lie ahead, and proposals for protecting this human right are considered in a new report by Cardus, a Canadian think tank. The report argues for robust freedom of conscience, explains how to get there, and identifies three cases from Canada that invite us to rethink our current approach.
The Irene Thomas Hospice, a private healthcare facility that declined to offer euthanasia for ethical reasons, was shut down by public health authorities this year. Star of the Sea Parish, a Catholic community that refused to rent its event hall for a Pride fundraiser due to the community’s beliefs on marriage and family, is being sued by an LGBTQ group. And Shahdin Farsai, a lawyer who questioned the wisdom of obliging all lawyers and litigants to identify the “correct pronouns” by which they should be addressed in the courtroom, was canceled by the court of public opinion.
The Cardus report offers proposals for how to address these sorts of cases. Regulators of healthcare workers should adopt conscientious objection policies that encompass referrals. Legislatures should enact laws to protect conscientious healthcare for the sake of professionals, patients and institutions. Courts must afford freedom of conscience proper protection where a case engages this right. Anti-discrimination provisions of human rights codes must be interpreted in a way that respects constitutional rights. And the state should only require citizens to publicly affirm beliefs with which they conscientiously disagree as a last resort, if ever.
In a nutshell, the state must take freedom of conscience seriously. Governments, administrative decision-makers and courts must approach and handle this human right as a “fundamental freedom.” This is the term used in the Canadian Constitution to classify freedom of conscience. It is long past time for us to govern ourselves accordingly.
In addition to making changes to law and policy, we also need a change of mindset. Frankly, without interior change, any action in the realm of law and policy will do little to improve matters. A change of hearts and minds is required because there has been a tectonic shift in how we handle ideological collisions. Whereas the starting point was once a sturdy form of tolerance, of live and let live, this principle is fading. Tolerance, once widely recognized as an essential element of free and democratic societies, has become a dirty word.
The Cardus report describes the “paradigm shift” that is needed to give any other proposals on freedom of conscience a fighting chance of bearing fruit:
Merely enacting legislation or ratifying policies that protect conscience will not suffice; there must also be a change in our personal attitudes on this issue. Before the law gets involved, we as citizens must learn, or relearn, the importance of conscience rights to the flourishing of the individual and society alike. Such a shift would mean that, in the case of Star of the Sea described above, for example, the complaint of White Rock Pride would not have been filed in the first place. The adage “live and let live” must be rediscovered and reaffirmed. It is easy to exhibit a “spirit of brotherhood” when we agree with each other. We must do the same even—and perhaps especially—when we disagree.
The report goes on to say more about the importance of rehabilitating the principle of tolerance:
If this grassroots rediscovery of tolerance does not occur, and tolerance thereby fades further and further out of view, our society will inevitably gravitate closer and closer to the so-called tyranny of the majority, or at least to the tyranny of the intolerant minority within the majority. Such a state of affairs not only is antithetical to the essence of liberal democracy but also runs the risk of creating a vicious cycle, in which today’s tyrannized minority will be tempted to become tomorrow’s tyrannizing majority. Human nature, we can all agree, is flawed. We would do well to avoid inviting these human frailties to take centre stage and become unbridled.
The neglect—and at times the outright derision—of freedom of conscience leads to significant adverse consequences, some of which are not immediately apparent. Scholars have identified tangible harm, often termed moral injury, that may visit persons who violate their conscience. The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University, for example, studies this type of harm in the context of military personnel returning from the battlefield. But moral injury can also occur in less harrowing circumstances. It is easy to imagine the inner turmoil—even torment—that a nurse or doctor who sees euthanasia as murder will experience if they betray this belief at work.
The Collateral Damage of Conscience Violation
Beyond the personal harm that flows from betraying our fundamental understanding of who we are and what we stand for, unjust curtailments of this freedom often inflict collateral damage.
A healthcare facility is closed, disrupting care and causing unemployment. Solidarity among citizens is weakened when a faith community is targeted for living its faith integrally. And access to justice diminishes when access to the courts, a basic right in a country ruled by law, becomes contingent on taking a public position on the relationship between sex and gender.
The Cardus report closes with words of Martin Luther King, Jr. that we can all endorse. In 1968, King said that there “comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” King reminds us that, at the end of the day, some brave people will take a stand in accord with their conscience, regardless of the fallout. This reality points to the intimate relationship between conscience and dignity. This relationship is precisely what should lead us to say that, in a liberal democracy, the freedom to follow conscience without fear of reprisal must be far more the rule than the exception.
Many of us have forgotten that freedom of conscience has roots that run far deeper than the text of a constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gestures to this reality, declaring that human beings, by nature, are “endowed with reason and conscience.” Freedom to follow one’s conscience is a human right in the truest sense and of the highest order. Indeed, by virtue of our humanity, it is nothing less than our birthright.