Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
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Conscience Votes Entail Responsibilities, Not just Rights

Lord help me, here comes another conscience vote. This time, it’s about whether our Federal MPs think it’s OK to spend our taxes on the cost of an abortion necessary to save a woman’s life, or to evacuate her uterus of a fetus that is already dead, or affected by “gross” abnormalities. In 2006, Parliamentarians were allowed to exercise their moral judgment on the acceptability of therapeutic cloning techniques to explore cures for diseases like Parkinson’ disease and help for those confined for life to wheelchairs. RU486, and before this, the Northern Territory’s euthanasia bill.

Conscience votes sound like a great idea. Some argue that they are democracy at work, with legislators freed from party discipline and factional pressure to form a view based on the evidence, and express it through their vote.

The truth is more complex. Yes, conscience votes are a noble idea, but unless parliamentarians understand both their rights and responsibilities when they cast one, the results can be, well, unconscionable.

Here’s how it’s meant to work. The right to follow the dictates of our conscience comes from the value of autonomy. Autonomy means self-rule, and an autonomous person is one who is free to live her life according to her own values.

Autonomy matters to Australians. It is no exaggeration to say that in western countries like ours, it is the value that reigns supreme. Woven into the fabric of a political system that has individual liberty as its central goal, it is also central to the common law view that a person is legally responsible for her choices and so must be free to make them.\ Conscience votes protect the autonomy of MPs. They allow them to follow the dictates of their conscience by letting them vote for something they believe is right, and against what they think is wrong.

But not so fast.

MPs, like all professionals, don’t just have rights, they have responsibilities. By fighting for an issue to be decided by conscience vote, or just accepting the privilege of casting one, they acknowledge how important it is for them to live as they believe.

In what way is it fair or just then, for them to a cast a vote that deprives others of the same freedom they enjoy with their vote: the freedom to follow their conscience? Yet, this is what many do. Indeed, it is those who fight so hard for personal moral issues like abortion and stem cell research to be decided by conscience vote, that go on to cast their vote in such a way as to deny the importance of conscience in the lives of others. They vote against legislation that would give women the right to exercise their consciences on the abortion question, or those with critical illness the freedom to decide their own fate.

Hypocrisy? Absolutely, and made all the worse by the fact that MPs are the ones who are meant to be protecting the autonomy – and the rights of conscience – of their constituents, not undermining it. The job description in a liberal democratic country like ours is not to impose their values on us, but to legislate in ways that uphold the priniciple that we, not they, know what is right for us.

A few years ago mutual obligation was the moral concept of the month, and if this isn’t a mutual obligation issue, I don’t know what is. Yes, as members of our community, politicians have a right to live their lives according to their values. But as our elected representatives, they have responsibilities, too. Namely, to take the conscience rights of those they are bound to serve as seriously as they do their own.

Publication History

Conscience Votes Entail Responsibilities, Not just Rights, The Sun-Herald (Sydney)
07 Sep 2008

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