There is a dispute opening up in Ireland between the government and Catholic hospitals, who have recently said they have a moral objection to performing abortions. The government, who is working now to legislate for abortion, has responded that hospitals who receive public funds must follow the law of the land, and that only individuals can be recognized as having the ability to hold conscientious objections. In saying this, the government seems to have forgotten that hospitals are not merely buildings full of inhuman healing machines, but are rather associated groups of individuals – individuals who do in fact hold moral beliefs. The government has also ignored the precedent set in 44 States in America, the American Medical Association, and a 2010 resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stating that “No person, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion.”
What these allowances recognize is the fact that groups of people are (not surprisingly) still people. If a union of government employees, living off government money, agrees to demand higher wages or better working conditions, their desires are not disqualified from being real desires simply because they are presenting them as a union. If an aid organization who receives government grants decides to challenge the government on their work policy for refugees, their moral concerns are not invalidated by the fact that they are holding them together as an organization. As a more direct example, let’s say the Irish government builds a charity hospital (with some funding from the host country) in a place where female genital mutilation is the law of the land. Will the government of Ireland submit to provide this service in their hospital? Will their moral objection be disqualified because, as a government, they are acting as a group so cannot be said to have a conscience? No. Yet if the government reserves for itself the right to hold moral opinions, how can it deny the same to other groups? It seems that in every case except this one, we recognize that groups of people are still people who can hold opinions, moral beliefs, and yes, even have conscience.
Ordering Catholic hospitals to provide what they believe is the intentional destruction of innocent children turns out to be no less tyrannical than ordering the doctors individually, because in ordering the group you are in fact only ordering individual people after all. Is it really so surprising that a group who associated itself for the express purpose of healing has an objection to being told it must destroy? Would a truly free and tolerant society enforce such a thing with all the weight of government power? Can Ireland continue to call itself a free republic if we limit when and where people are allowed to have a conscience?