The conscientious objection: the duty to disobey. Interview of Jacques Suaudeau


The conscientious objection is increasingly giving rise to questions for health professionals particularly due to the emergence of fictive rights, which mistakenly become real rights in the public opinion: right to control your own body, right to abortion, right to the child… Why and how do health professionals conscientiously object? Interview of Jacques Suaudeau1, author of the book " L’objection de conscience ou le devoir de désobéir " (the conscientious objection or the duty to disobey).
 
G: In the whole of the first part of your book you start from historical examples of conscientious objectors, from Socrates to Thomas More, to define the conscientious objection and to dissociate it from the civil disobedience. Can you explain us the difference between both concepts?
 
J.S.: The conscientious objection concerns a particular law for a country.  The characteristic of the conscientious objector is that he respects and honors all the laws of his country, he is a good citizen, but for a particular law, which appears to be morally wrong, he individually applies the conscientious objection clause. Instead the civil disobedience concerns a group of persons which disputes the legitimacy of a power and violates by this fact some of the injunctions of this power (the typical example is the movement led by Gandhi).  The civil disobedience can have an ethical touch (Thoreau in the USA), but is first of all a resistance force to a power. The conscientious objection can also be the fact of a group, whose all members oppose to a law deemed to be immoral, thus non-binding, but each person of the group applies personally objection (and not as part of a group). The conscientious objector, starts from a personal reflection which obliges him to oppose to the law deemed to be unique, avoids any public disorder, and accepts the negative consequences that can generate his objection for himself (difficulty of carrier, isolation…).
 
G: You talk about a duty to disobey when a personal conscience contradicts an "objectively" unfair law. However we must know what the word "conscience" means, and what the "unfair law" is. May you enlighten us?
 
J.S.: The conscience is what enables us to perceive the existence of the good and the evil2. It is not an absolute master, but an instrument to refine. Thus there is a work to do starting from its culture, religion, limits, to improve its conscience in order to identify a law as unfair. The difficulty is that there is as many objective as subjective factors to qualify a law as "unfair". The objective factor for abortion, for instance, is to kill the fetus. But some persons will not qualify this law as unfair for all that. The conscientious objector will be attracting criticisms with others who will not have the same philosophic starting point. This philosophical pluralism comes from the fact that the natural moral law, which enables any person to make the difference between the good and the evil, has been questioned. This led us to relativism, and to the rupture between positive right and moral. This is from now the group of a moment which defines the good. However, there are basic elements to qualify a law as unfair: when it does not respect the value of the human life or the freedom of the other.
 
G: The code of conduct and the French legislation only authorize the conscientious objection for abortion or sterilization. However some legal obligations can raise problems for health professionals without planning a conscientious objection.
 
J.S.: The conscientious objection must be governed because in the guise of conscientious objection we could lead to anarchy. Thus the State must specify who can apply conscientious objection, on which points and in which conditions. This partcipates to the common good. But this also conducts to various inequalities. For instance the law does not foresee the conscientious objection for pharmacists or students. Having said that, there is only real conscientious objection when it is not foreseen by the law. For instance, the physician who is obliged to propose the prenatal4 diagnosis for Down syndrome to a couple he knows intentions of abortion in case of diagnosis of Down syndrome, can feel that he cooperates to abortion which will follow the announcement of the Down syndrome. The same applies to the pharmacist which is obliged to have abortion pills in stock. However in both cases the law does not foresee conscientious objection. For the PND of Down syndrome, if the physician knows when prescribing the screening tests that the intention of the woman is to abort the Down syndrome diagnosed foetus, his cooperation is established. Also the physician, who wishes to object to this process when he knows the parents’ intention to abort, has every interest to specify that he does not prescribe these tests. For the pharmacist, he can attempt to circumvent the things saying to his clients that he does not have any pills on stock.
In all cases, the conscientious objector has every interest to make his principles known, to make use and to be good and honest practitioner. This way he will be less exposed to difficult cases. When those occur, the professionals, while maintaining their objection, have to accompany the person, by clearly explaining why they will not accept the demand of VTP of the woman for instance.  
 
G: What is your reaction on the recommendation of the French HCEfh5 to remove the conscientious objection to affirm a “fundamental right” to abortion, as well as the ongoing legislative process on the extension of the offense of obstruction to the abortion?
 
J.S.: The law on abortion is an unfair law. Then the government can do what it wants, but with such projects it goes in a democratic direction, it has a moral basis, or that it respects people.  The removal of the conscientious objection has been clearly rejected by the European Parliament, and France ratified the Oviedo convention which protects the embryo, then France should be logic.
In this regards, the responsibility of our politicians is high. If the law is contrary to the moral they have the duty to limit it with amendments and to tell that they are against this law.
 
1. Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau is doctor in medicine and scientific director of the Pontifical Academy for Life, author of the book " L’objection de conscience, ou le devoir de désobéir ", at " L’Evangile de la vie ".
2. The "daemon" from Socrates, "the Conscientia" from Cicerone, or even “the expression of practical reason" from Kant.
3. Firstly by Okham, the nominalism.
4. DPN.     
5. High council for equality between women and men.