In the aftermath of the Nazis’ defeat, the world was scandalized by the odious defence offered by the war criminals at the Nuremberg trials. How could these men defend their moral decisions by appealing to the legitimacy of an illegitimate regime? How dare they defend themselves by saying they were “only following orders”?

In the quiet of the courtroom, it was clear that the defendants – educated, intelligent professionals – were morally responsible and legally culpable for fulfilling the outrageous orders of an unjust state. It was obvious to everyone that these men did not have to comply with requests that no one has the right to make.

When the state ordered them to violate their consciences, it overstepped its limits and lost its legitimacy. When any governing body refuses to respect the right of a citizen to make his own moral decisions, it loses its authority and, indeed, its humanity.

It is, thus, not surprising that two years ago, when a guest editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggested that doctors make abortion referrals, regardless of their personal beliefs, outraged and incredulous readers protested. But now, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has proposed a draft policy which would impose this very restriction on all of its members.

The college claims that “decisions to restrict medical services offered … that are based on moral or religious beliefs may contravene the (Ontario Human Rights) Code, and/or constitute professional misconduct.” To suggest that the moral qualms of medical professionals are somehow unprofessional is incredible. How can the college, which has such a high regard for the medical opinions of its members, not extend the same respect to their moral opinions?

In many ways, this draft policy embodies the reductio ad absurdum of a certain kind of logic, so prevalent in our age: the logic of being “personally opposed.” This cowardly political compromise is always found on the lips of politicians who say they do not want to “impose their personal beliefs” about abortion on society (yet feel free to impose their beliefs about everything else). But, the politics of personal opposition creates a pernicious attitude towards personal beliefs of individuals: if a politician can violate his conscience for his constituents, why not for the policy of the party or for the orders of an autocrat? Certainly, the historical parallel is unattractive. But, with such a restrictive, coercive policy, we believe the parallel is unavoidable: they were only following orders.

Because some doctors refuse to violate the sanctity of life, the sanctity of the freedom of conscience is now being attacked. The paradox could not be more painful: doctors who are unwilling to sacrifice their consciences may soon be found unfit to practise medicine; but are the doctors who are willing to violate their beliefs worthy of our trust? The irony, of course, is that many of those called to the medical profession are called precisely because of their religious and moral beliefs and their desire to help others. We hope that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario will not impose such a dangerous and dehumanizing policy on its members.