The European Court of Human Rights has issued a judgement adverse to freedom of conscience and ordered Poland to pay two complainants, a mother and daughter, a total of 61,000 Euros in damages and costs. Subject to the possibility that the English translation of the judgement is faulty, the use of the term “anti-choice activist” by the judges brings their impartiality into question. However, the facts of the case outlined in the judgement suggest that the conduct of Polish health care personnel, anti-abortion activists, clergy and state authorities effectively guaranteed an adverse outcome.
A 14 year old girl, P. supported by her mother, S., sought an abortion for a pregnancy alleged to have been the result of a rape. While she obtained the necessary prosecutor’s certificate for the procedure, mother and daughter received contradictory information from two public hospitals in Lublin. Further, health care personnel clearly violated principles of patient confidentiality and informed consent in an effort to dissuade the girl from having an abortion. These violations included clearly coercive and manipulative tactics. P and S experienced
- the intervention of a priest and anti-abortion activists, unsolicited and unwanted,
- importuning by anti-abortion activists that included confrontations in public,
- national media attention, including a press release issued by a hospital concerning P,
- detention and six hours of questioning by the police,
- apprehension of the girl by state authorities, apparently for the express purpose of preventing the abortion,
- posting on internet by the Catholic News Agency of the girl’s travel to Gdansk for an abortion,
- the filing of criminal charges against the girl for having had unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (i.e., the rape that resulted in pregnancy)
While the court found that objecting physicians had a legal obligation to refer patients for abortion, the source of that legal obligation was Polish law. Article 39 of Poland’s Doctor and Dentist Professions Act imposes a legal obligation of referral. The imposition is objectionable in principle, but the European Court of Human Rights can hardly be criticized for applying Polish law to Polish citizens.
In a speech to the law school at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Giovanni Cardinal Lajolo, former president of the commission governing Vatican City State, warned that the current controversy in the United States about freedom of conscience indicates the need to seek greater protection for freedom of conscience in Europe. Speaking at length on the subject, he insisted that individual religious believers as well as religious institutions should always be able to live live and act in conformity with their conscientious convictions. [CNS]
Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, has issued a statement supporting the exercise of conscientious objection to military service. He argues that objectors should be given a “genuinely civilian” alternative to compulsory military service, not imprisoned. [CE press release]
In a document addressing the issue of advance directives, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe included the statement, “Euthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit, must always be prohibited.” While the document is not legally binding on member states of the European Union, it has persuasive weight. It thus seems less likely that health care workers who object to euthanasia will be pressured to participate in the procedure. However, the document makes no reference to assisted suicide. [Resolution 1859 (2012)]
Member of the European Parliament Roger Helmer has written in favour of assisted suicide on grounds beyond those recommended by a recent report by a private commission, advocating the availability of the procedure for those not terminally ill. He explicitly argues that the cost of supporting people with advanced dementia is one reason to accept the practice. [TFA]
Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union are reported to be trying to make it illegal for health care workers to decline to perform abortions for reasons of conscience. The negotiations at the Beijing +5 conference are said to have broken down when Nicaragua proposed strong language to protect conscientious objectors. If accurate, these reports indicate that the US, Australia and New Zealand are attempting to impose on third world countries policies that are not acceptable in their own, since all three countries have enacted protection of conscience legislation for their own health care workers.