Conscience – and Cicero – under Siege

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has not been shy about carrying water for a distinctive brand of politicized medicine. If it is in the Orwellian “Affordable Care Act” (where promised savings of $2,500 on insurance premiums morph into $3,000 increases), the NEJM is ready to offer its “scientific” imprimatur. 

It ran earnest pro-rationing and pro-euthanasia pieces not long after Obamacare’s opponents were denounced as delusional alarmists; insiders now admit they see a need for death panels.

I was making my way through another article in the NEJM last month, fully prepared for its slanted perspective, when something extraordinary happened.  Well, I should say that the author ended an exceptionally disturbing and poorly argued piece, entitled “Recognizing Conscience in Abortion Provision,” with an extraordinarily instructive statement.

The author, Dr. Lisa Harris from the University of Michigan, wants us to believe that the term “conscience” should not be conceded as the sole property of abortion opponents because some people, like her, feel compelled to provide abortion as a matter of conscience.

It is not enough that abortion has been legalized. It is not enough that others are forced to subsidize it. Now, others must come to recognize it as a positive good, at least in some people’s minds. 

Dr. Harris concludes with this telling gem: “Failure to recognize that conscience compels abortion provision, just as it compels refusals to offer abortion care, renders conscience an empty concept and leaves us all with no moral ground (high or low) on which to stand.”

The undiagnosed schizophrenia condensed into this one sentence is breathtaking, at least as it epitomizes the moral confusion of our times. She couldn’t be more wrong about what conscience compels (to say nothing about the oxymoronic locution “abortion care”).

Yet she is absolutely right, in isolation, to sense that conscience runs the risk of becoming an “empty concept” if it becomes dislodged from its moral grounding.

Unwilling to follow her own line of reasoning any further, she is utterly blind to the dogmatic quality of her own preference for floating rather than fixed moral criteria, even with respect to matters of life and death: no threats to her freedom to decide for herself may be entertained.                

As long as my view is sincerely held, such thinking goes, any actions stemming from it are to be protected by “conscience.” Who dares nowadays to say I am wrong? I am golden. Critics would just be atavistically judgmental anyway.

But if I am ever accused of wrongdoing, I can turn the tables: I stand not accused but justified – by my conscience.  In other words, by me! Conscience becomes an unprincipled, neutral harbor, where even vessels carrying evil cargo may drop anchor.  

Exploring the truth is out of the question when one has already committed to retreating from it. This is precisely how one faulty concept of conscience, Benedict XVI observes, has tended to function of late – as “subjectivitys protective shell into which man can escape and there hide from reality.”


Man hides there in plain view, it seems, with plenty of company; too many will read Dr. Harris’s article and nod. Benedict argues that this view of conscience leads to social conformism and rewards “superficial conviction” (with prestigious university posts and published articles in the NEJM for example): “the less depth he [man] has, the better off he is.” 

Conscience understood as holding fast to the truth becomes inherently discriminatory, even liable to sanction by the State. We’re now enduring a crash course on this reality.

Even a pagan like Cicero would have recognized the obvious injustice; the just state must protect rather than encroach upon conscience and the natural law to which it submits with docility.

“True law is right reason in agreement with nature” Cicero wrote in On the Republic; “it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions.”

Dr. Harris recognizes this latter, important point: that conscience binds us to do certain things just as it compels us to refrain from others. But she’s clearly not on board with the rest of it. (The entire passage is worth a look). 

So what if the old Roman insists that there will not be “different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times?”

That’s the thing about the cult of self: you can just as readily reject the arts of human reason and wisdom that have stood the test of time as you can reject religious authority. 

But I wonder how she’d react, deep down, to what Cicero adds to his description of the true law: “it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked.”

That’s got to hurt. Cicero read her mind – its willful imperviousness to the commands and prohibitions of true law – two thousand years ago not by crystal ball, but by careful observation of human nature. 

The truth always cuts us to the quick. Unless you choose to blow it off entirely.

Dr. Harris doesn’t need supernatural foresight – elementary hindsight is all that is required – to see mayhem incubating within the mindset that says I am compelled to do evil acts because my conscience tells me they are good.

A conscience deadened to what constitutes wrongdoing, Benedict maintains, “is an even more dangerous sickness of the soul” than the guilt present in “the one who still recognizes the shamefulness of his actions.”

When you can’t get such a basic diagnosis right, Physician, heal thyself becomes an even taller order.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.