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26 January 2018

Respecting authority, and defending freedom of conscience.

Dr Peter Saunders is chief executive at Christian Medical Fellowship and a member of the Evangelical Alliance Council.  

I've been thinking about a big question this week: what are the limits to standing up to authority when we're feeling coerced into doing something we believe to be wrong?  

For medical practitioners, this can be a very real consideration. We can face serious ethical questions as part of our work where we have to weigh up what we believe about God, and what our ruling authorities ask from us.  

So, I have been following the passage of the Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill through parliament with keen interest. The Bill, brought by Baroness O'Loanaims to strengthen the conscience rights of healthcare professionals who believe it would be wrong to be involved in three specific activities – abortion, activities under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 such as embryo research or egg donation, and withdrawal of life-preserving treatment.  

Of course, as Christians we are called to respect the governing authorities as they are instituted by God Himself (Romans 13:1&2).  

But are there limits? What should we do if they try to force us to do something we believe is wrong?  

Currently the law offers general conscience protection. The Equality Act 2010 includes religion and belief as two of nine ‘protected characteristics’ and the Human Rights Act 1998, which brought the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ (article 9). But these rights are limited. 

In 2014 the Supreme Court ruled that two Glasgow midwives, who were working as labour ward coordinators, could not opt out of supervising abortions. It said that the conscience clause in the Abortion Act 1967 only applied to those who were directly involved in abortion and not to those involved in delegation, authorisation, supervision and support. This ruling left many health professionals vulnerable to coercion. 

As Christian citizens we must respect those who rule over us but the Bible is equally clear that if discriminatory laws are passed, and obeying such laws involves disobeying God, then our higher duty is to obey God. If you love me you will obey me, says Jesus (John 14:15). 

The Bible is full of examples of people of faith standing up to authority. When the king of Egypt ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew children they refused to do so and God commended and rewarded them (Exodus 1:15-22). 

A fiery furnace did not stop Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow down to the image of the king and a lions’ den did not deter Daniel from persisting with public prayer (Daniel 3:16-18, 6:1-10). 

When Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish authorities not to preach the Gospel they replied, 'We must obey God rather than men' and continued to do it (Acts 5:29). 

Making sure that we can stand up to the authorities when our freedom of conscience is threatened is what Baroness O'Loan's bill is all about. Let's thank God that in Britain we have the democratic right to participate in shaping public policy.  

Freedom of conscience is not a minor or peripheral issue and it is not only Christians who are affected. It goes to the heart of healthcare practice as a moral activity. Current UK law and professional guidelines respect the right of doctors to refuse to engage in certain procedures to which they have a conscientious objectionThe right of conscience helps to preserve the moral integrity of the individual clinician, preserves the distinctive characteristics and reputation of medicine as a profession, acts as a safeguard against coercive state power, and provides protection from discrimination for those with minority ethical beliefs. 

As Christians, let's stand up for freedom of conscience. Can you get in touch with your MP and ask them to support the billIf you don't encounter these kinds of tough decisions, how can you be praying for those who do? 

Find out more about the ‘Free Conscience’ campaign, backed by many Christian groups, at www.freeconscience.org.uk. 

Image: Pixaby