Bishop of Peterborough supports Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill

On 26th January 2018 Baroness O’Loan introduced her private member’s bill, the Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill [HL], for its Second Reading debate in the House of Lords. The Bishop of Peterborough, Rt Revd Donald Allister, spoke in support of it: 

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough: My Lords, yesterday, the River Restaurant downstairs helped us to celebrate Burns Night all day. I thoroughly enjoyed the Scotch broth at lunchtime, but I resisted the main course as I was eating out in the evening. I even resisted the whisky bread-and-butter pudding. The main course which I resisted was vegetarian haggis, celebrating Robert Burns in a way that respected the consciences of those who do not want to eat meat. That is a very proper and good thing to do. There is no legal requirement to provide vegetarian haggis, but it was welcome to many and I think that I would have enjoyed it.

Lord Cormack (Con): It was indeed very good.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough: Clearly the noble Lord particularly enjoyed it.

Yesterday was not only Burns Night; it was also for church people the festival of the Conversion of St Paul. In his teaching, St Paul is very strong in asserting that although Christians are free to make many decisions morally, they must always respect the conscience of those who are weaker—those who have a tender conscience. That is an absolute requirement of the Christian faith. Those whose consciences are more tender or weak than our own must be respected and not be forced to go against those consciences. We have the same teaching in other areas of religion as well. The Old Testament makes it very clear that the vulnerable and the weak are to be supported and helped. In the teaching of Jesus, he criticises those leaders who lay burdens on ordinary folk that are too heavy for them to bear.

In the history of the world since the time of Christ, in particular in our own country, we can see a great deal of influence by the Judeo-Christian tradition, including the development of free societies, of what we now tend to call liberal democracies. In those societies a great deal of attention has always been paid to the rights of consciences even when, because they are more tender and sensitive, they go beyond the views of many other people. Every free society respects the rights of conscience to a great extent, and we have some of that in this debate. Societies that restrict the rights of conscience tend to be those which are tyrannical and on the extreme left or extreme right of politics. In free societies, a great deal of tolerance is shown to those who have conscientious objections to all sorts of things.

This is not just a matter of religion. Conscience is a very deep part of what it means to be human. It is not only religious rights we are talking about; it is very deep human rights. People should not be forced to go against what they believe to be right or wrong. This Bill, which I support strongly and look forward to seeing further debated and possibly amended, recognises some changes since the Abortion Act. Today, most abortions entail far more involvement by nurses and pharmacists than they did in the early days. Methods of carrying out abortions have changed. I believe that it is right to extend the conscience clause, for example, to pharmacists since their involvement is greater than it used to be. As a society, we need to find ways to modify the law as it was set out in 1967, not just to affirm the conscience clause there. I believe that this is a matter of public concern, of public policy and for public debate. If the 1967 Act needs to be clarified, that should be done not just in the courts but in Parliament on behalf of the people of this country. If the 1967 Act is proving to be in some way unsatisfactory in that some people’s consciences are not being allowed for, we need to do something to modify it. That means not reducing the possibility of abortion or people’s freedom to seek medical treatment, which I want to underscore, but allowing those who have a tender conscience to exercise it. I support the Bill.


Baroness Thornton (Lab)…I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough that the word I looked for in his contribution was “equality”. The reason I looked for that is because many of us in this House have struggled with how to reflect conscience and ensure equality. I ask him to reflect on that, because many of the proposals in the Bill will affect LGBT rights and the rights of other groups. Because he is wise in his ways, he needs to reflect on the fact that the Bill will restrict rights to abortion and other procedures….

Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen (Con)….As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough mentioned, it is of course right that medical practitioners and other health professionals should have their personal beliefs respected….Before I end, I will answer a couple of questions raised during the debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough mentioned pharmacists. The General Pharmaceutical Council informed us that it is currently analysing responses to its recent consultation on religion, personal values and beliefs in delivering person-centred care. The GPC will then make a decision on any changes to standards for pharmacy professionals. …


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