"What we need to do is stick with the notion of conscience and say: This is about reality, this is about truth and we need to inform ourselves and make sure we don't make errors of conscience." These are the words of Anthony McCarthy, a respected bioethicist and education manager for the UK pro-life organisation, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). Speaking with ZENIT at a recent Rome conference, Dr. McCarthy explained why conscience rights are under attack, and why and how Catholics should do their utmost to protect them.

What are the current challenges regarding conscientious objection in the medical profession at the moment?

The first point is that if you look at medical codes, they often talk of conscientious objection but they don't give any definition of conscience. I think there's a real confusion in this area. Conscientious objection often isn't seen sympathetically among people without certain strong beliefs. They see it as people simply asserting their will, protests, and being awkward. This leads to a great deal of conformity. I give the example of very able medical students I met who simply had no sympathy for conscientious objection. They assumed that the (British) General Medical Council codes on conscientious objection actually gave less strength to conscientious objection than they did. And these codes themselves mandate people to cooperate in evil activity.

So it's heavily slanted towards the secular?

Exactly, so you're expected to refer someone for an abortion, give people information. You're expected at some level to cooperate. You're expected to discriminate against certain people. Conscientious objection is about reasoning, not some external command. Sometimes religious people think it's something external, almost arbitrary. You just have to follow it, as opposed to something you do have to follow but that it must also come from reasoning, moral reasoning, and is directed to some kind of good. The problem now is that it's detached from notion of truth, it's detached from the notion of reasoning. I say that mirrors something of the debate on same sex "marriage". There you have morality detached from the notion of the body and all what comes with body, from notions of good, and indeed from notions of truth. Same-sex "marriage" is, to me, the abolition of marriage. You remove meaning from the body, you remove complementarity in sexuality which makes meaning of our procreative, unitive faculties - it makes the meaning of marriage. You remove all of that, and you remove the procreative element. The child is what binds, what makes sense of a lifelong commitment. Obviously, not everyone will have a child but that's the structure that we have. You replace that with a view about contracts, a view about genderless individuals, and it doesn't make sense why you should have two people. It could be three or four. Morality and truth is removed, and all becomes arbitrary concerning these notions of conscience.

Some argue, in the face of relativism, that conscience is a relative concept, and that what might be wrong for a Christian would be right for a Muslim for example. How much is this part of the problem?

I would say Christians have far more resources made available to the Church. But at a basic level, if we're talking about moral conscience, there is the notion of natural law and that's accessible to everybody and there is moral reasoning. Certainly issues of abortion and sexual ethics are knowable through our natural reasoning. Now Catholics may be well supported, it may be a lot easier for them, but the appeal to somebody's moral conscience can be made to everybody and in fact people who convert to Christianity say that it always made sense, that they always felt that was the case. As a human being we have natural moral reason, we can perceive the good, although it is often clouded.

So the challenge today is to get governments to realise this?

Yes, but the difficulty is that states always tend to want to impose their view. Conscientious objection is a kind of concession they uneasily make and is something they would like to get rid of, and generally do get rid of, when they have certain power. Now that happens whoever is in power, even good people in power. There will always be, at some level, a lack of tolerance in these things. That's kind of understandable but if you have a government that has little sense of the ethical and any interest in that, that's always going to be disastrous. What we need to do is stick with the notion of conscience and say: "This is about reality, this is about truth" and we need to inform ourselves and make sure we dont make errors of conscience. But we have to stick with conscience because otherwise were doing what we know is evil and that can never be right.

How hopeful are you that changes can be made to renew the importance of conscience in states. Or are we too far gone?

Sometimes people say, also in the Church, "You get on with what you're doing as long as you give me my conscientious objection. But that's a bit like saying: "We'll give up on the public square and we'll retreat into our little parish and community and we'll get on that way." I think that's madness not least because if you retreat into your little community, the public square will get you in the end. So you've got to try and fight in the public square and, as I say, there's a common natural law and we have a duty to try and do this. So what we need to do is fight more in the public square and say certain things are absolutely wrong, nobody should be doing them and not say: "Oh the battles over as long as we get conscientious objection." Because that way you're always going to lose anyway because you've given up on truth in a sense. It's a retreat; it ceases to be about morality that applies to everyone. It's like becoming a sect and then people don't take you seriously. They want that retreat. So with same-sex "marriage", this is a radically new vision of man - it's been in the air for centuries, but it's stated more radically now. That's already causing conscience problems, because can a registrar be involved in a "marriage"? But also can medics be involved in practices which are anti-marital, involve surrogacy, involves going along with the vision of the person whereby children are products, pregnancy isnt special? So I think it all comes together in this.