With the setup of Renua Ireland, and the impending marriage equality referendum, there’s an awful lot of talk about conscience lately. When Lucinda Creighton was expelled from Fine Gael for voting against a bill related to abortion, she spoke a lot about how it was a “matter of conscience” for her, and her new party’s policy on abortion rights states that they “do not believe party politics in Ireland has a place for issues of conscience”. More recently, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made comments about the place of conscience in today’s society, when speaking about how lay Catholics might be “forced” to provide services relating to LGBT marriage ceremonies even if it was against their beliefs.
One would be forgiven for thinking that conscience is something which only matters to people who wish to curtail things like abortion rights or LGBT rights. Lucinda told us that she should be able to vote with her conscience, and now Diarmuid Martin wants us to consider conscience as we vote on marriage equality in May. Both seem to make the same error – assuming that they are the only people who have conscience, and who choose to vote with it, and that anyone who consults their conscience must ultimately come to the same conclusions as they have. They are, in my opinion, quite wrong. Conscience isn’t something which only matters to anti marriage equality (or anti abortion rights) campaigners, and I dearly wish that they would stop pretending that it is.
There are a great many people (myself included) who find in unconscionable that, in this day and age, a group of people would be denied rights based on sexuality, but my freedom of conscience doesn’t seem to matter as much to Diarmuid Martin, who speaks from the privileged position of not only having all rights afforded to him, but even having a free pass on employment discrimination. He speaks from a pulpit on top of a hill of rights and freedoms, and some people aren’t even allowed to start climbing it yet.
It weighs on my conscience that there is a large group of people in this country who will have their fate decided by others, and my conscience tells me that the right thing to do is to treat all people as equals – not a watered-down limited “separate but equal” equality, but genuine equality. My conscience tells me that I should make this decision with forethought and compassion for my fellow man, because I accept that marriage equality isn’t about denying “traditional” marriage, nor about redefining it, nor is it about destroying parenting and ruining children. It is about the right of two people to be treated equally with respect to their relationship, two people being afforded the basic dignity of not having to fight for recognition of their relationship, or accept a compromise solution that “traditional” married couples will never have to. I have the luxury of having an automatic right to marry someone of my choosing, and I can’t, in good conscience, deny that right to other people.
It weighs on my conscience that women are forced to travel abroad to access abortion services which they should be able to access here. The limiting of this access disproportionately affects women in difficult circumstances, poor or disadvantaged families, and anyone who can’t simply spare a great deal of money at a moment’s notice. It forces women who are confronted with the devastating news that their baby will not survive to travel far from family and friends, and then wait for their baby’s remains to arrive by mail, or to endure the rest of the pregnancy (and the countless comments from well-wishers who won’t know that questions about the baby’s sex or whether you’ve bought a pram are heartbreaking). It forces parents into the high court to allow a daughter to die with dignity, and brings judges and lawyers into a decision that should be made by medical professionals and family.
These, too, are matters of conscience, and when I vote on them, I will vote with my conscience. It is inaccurate and insulting to assume that people who support marriage equality and abortion rights (or any of the other topics to which conscience has been loudly attached) do so without conscience, without consideration, without thought. Conscience is not solely owned by the religious right, by “think tanks” like the Iona Institute, or by pro-life campaigners, and it’s about time that they stopped acting like it is.