This article appears in the May 2011 Edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

Has Thought Crime Arrived?

A Christian couple, Eunice and Owen Johns, applied to the Derby City Council in 2007 to become either foster parents or offer a loving home to a child in need. Their application was blocked as the Council operatives objected on the grounds that the Johns were not willing to promote the practice of homosexuality to a young child. Their appeal against this decision eventually reached the High Court, where in a landmark judgement which will have a serious impact on the future of fostering and adoption in the U.K. The court suggested that Christians with traditional views on sexual ethics are unsuitable as foster carers, and that homosexual rights trump freedom of conscious. The judges stated that Christian beliefs on sexual ethics may be "inimitable" to children, and they implicitly upheld an Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) submission that children risked being "infected" by Christian moral beliefs. They have since apologised and withdrawn this latter remark.

A spokesman for the Scottish Bishops described the judgement as "not just worrying for Christians but for any thinking person. This ruling marks the arrival of Thought Crime" he said "the couple in question had merely stated their deep seated Christian belief or consciousness, a belief shared by millions of people not just Christians in the U.K. It now seems in certain situations you cannot act according to your consciousness without the risk of ending up in court. In a public consultation by the Scottish Government over whether same sex couples should be allowed to adopt, a staggering 89% of the public were opposed. While the judges ruling does not apply to Scotland, the fear is that Scottish Courts may well follow suit". The essence of the judgement means that Christians who hold authodox views on the family, marriage and sexuality will continue to face difficulties in the fostering and adoption regulations and the courts will not intervene to stop this from happening. In fact the summary contained in the judgement makes in clear that Christian parents with mainstream Christian views are not suitable to be considered as parents. For the judges to claim that there was no discrimination against the Johns as Christians, they were being excluded for their sexual beliefs and not their Christian beliefs manifests incredible confusion. Moral views are formed by Christian faith so it becomes an attack on faith.

While the judges have embarked on this path the government is considering the legalisation of same-sex marriages. This may have the effect of broadening attacks on conscience. Two proposals are being considered, according to Neil Addison, first, to allow same-sex civil partnerships to be celebrated in religious buildings and second, to redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships. At present civil partnerships are purely civil with no religious element. The problem with both the suggested changes is that, in the present era of Human Rights and Anti-discrimination Laws once something is allowed, it can be illegal to refuse to provide it. It churches, synagogues and mosques are allowed to perform same — sex marriages or civil partnerships they could easily find themselves being sued for discrimination if they refuse to perform them. The Court of Appeal in the case of Johns v. Derby Council declared that religious objections to same sex relationships are not a "core part" of Christian belief and so are not protected under Human Rights Act.

Doctors, in such an environment will also find themselves guilty of thought crimes. Freedom of conscience is generally included in laws permitting many doubtful ethical actions. If however, a doctor cited conscience as the reason for not pursuing an abortion it could decided that failure to act as permitted by the Law, in a given instance, is not a " core part" of Christian belief, ,the end result could be dismissal. The eminent Liverpool QC Gerard Wright, who defended Victoria Gillick in her High Court actions, said many years ago, that he would love to defend a doctor who refused to do an abortion on grounds of conscience. We might wonder whether he would have won? Perhaps this unease is a cause of the feeling in some Catholic medical circles that too much personal emphasis and publicity being made by practitioners on Catholic moral teaching will be harmful to one's career prospects. Only when the goal of consultant or principal in General Practice has been achieved can the full moral teaching be debated in public.

It is said that in our Human Rights age what might have been possible in the past is now impossible. But the older generation will retort that they faced similar pressures and had to make harsh decisions. Some emigrated. Others avoided the speciality most likely to be affected by the moral teaching or kept their principles well wrapped up.

But in 1997 a study by the the Abortion Law Reform Association, an organisation which has long called for abortion on demand, revealed that a third of junior doctors recently qualified, are said to refusing on moral grounds to perform abortions. They were not concerned about their future.

The former Guild with a membership of over 1,000 doctors provided an active voice of clarity on all these issues. It progressively became more respected by parliamentarians and its contributions to the various Commissions and Enquiries were widely acclaimed and quoted. Catholic obstetricians and gynaecologists are now appointed despite their declarations not to perform abortions. The Catholic doctor is less of a curiosity than before. The current generation will certainly suffer if thought crime has arrived. As doctors are being given more power within the structure and objectives in the NHS, the Catholic doctor, at all levels of seniority, along with doctors from other religious denominations will be confronted with heavy responsibilities for the allocation of resources and the provision of medicines greater than ever. A new arena is about to be opened in which the social teaching of the Catholic Church must have a vital place. Thought crime implies an abolition of conscience and as James Bogle, the Chairman of the Catholic Union said recently ' religious and especially Christian groups were being singled out for discrimination '.

It is to be hoped that members of the Catholic Medical Association will not fade into anonymity when they defend Catholic moral principles. As the Holy Father highlighted during his recent visit the Catholic population is urged to be more flagrant in the future.