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Are you a friend of Tony Abbott?

The Mousepad does not make a habit of scaring readers into subscribing to the often politicised agenda of the pro-life lobby. But we read at the weekend that the Dutch Government has legislated for "neo-natal terminations", or legalised infanticide, in cases of "unbearable suffering", with parental consent and consultation with doctors. Is neo-natal termination just one step away from pre-natal termination? Who knows?

If there's one thing the recent parliamentary vote on RU486 has done, it's increased the polarisation that surrounds "life issues" in Australian society. This seems to have pushed aside the role of conscience on both sides. It's now much harder to hold a carefully nuanced view that is informed by conscience, and easier for Australians to lock themselves into pre-determined positions on such issues..They're now more ready to identify with the labels 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice', and they're increasingly likely to follow through the logical consquences of their ideological positions, in robotic fashion.

The pro-lifers are invariably identified as religious zealots. This makes it a bit difficult for liberal or mainstream Catholics, who are now under pressure to pitch their tent on one or other side of the fence. All Catholics care deeply about the right to life, not just those who support the work of pro-life lobbies. But it's become increasingly difficult for liberal Catholics to stand up for the right to life without being labelled a friend of Tony Abbott.

So what do centre and left-leaning Catholics do? Some take the pro-choice option. The organisation Catholics for a Free Choice has existed for years in the USA. And here, former Online Catholics editor Kate Mannix last month wrote an essay for the e-journal Online Opinion, titled "Pro-choice and Catholic: A mother's story".

Mannix speaks of her journey from "the pro-life position", towards "sorrowful" acceptance of the need to support her daughter's right to choose abortion if she was pregnant and did not feel she could say "yes" to motherhood. She is let down by a "wonderful" but doctrinaire priest who cannot fathom motherhood. Her point of departure in the article certainly shows signs of serious wrestling with conscience. But in the process of her argument, she uses enough of the rhetoric of the pro-choicers to earn the label 'pro-choice', and make it clear which direction she has jumped. It's possibly the hardening of attitudes in Australian society that has convinced her of the need to jump.

What if her daughter was in the Netherlands and not equipped to offer motherhood to her newly-born deformed infant who was experiencing "unbearable suffering"? Is it necessary to take a look at what fellow pro-choicers are doing and do likewise? Or is it possible to listen to her conscience and jump to the other side of the fence if they're doing the unthinkable? Mannix would probably do the latter, but for many Australians it's no longer a foregone conclusion.

If the importance of individual conscience in moral decision-making was better understood, the problem would not arise. Sadly, the role of conscience has been questioned in recent years. Catholics are confused, and likely to be more doctrinaire in their behaviour than before. Likewise, those in society's secular mainstream are looking upon the rise of religious fundamentalism as a threat to their way of life, and holding fast to their own doctrines.

It was therefore timely that news broke last month of the letter seeking clarification on the role of conscience written by the group of 24 eminent Catholics to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They may not have received a reply, but the reporting of their endeavour reminded their fellow Australians that conscience can play an important role in decision-making.

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