We are not the only country facing the moral dilemmas that accompany the struggle of humanity to build free, just and compassionate societies. With the progress of science and the improvement of standards of living, these dilemmas will come more and more to the forefront of concern.
The latest such dilemma in T&T was the refusal, on religious grounds, of a new-born baby's parents to give consent to a life-saving blood transfusion.
The sects that regard blood transfusion as diabolic may be on the fringes. But there are many moral issues, latent in the past, that have come to prominence in recent times, and which excite the ire of more influential groups than the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Christian Scientists.
As a result, conflicts are blown out of proportion, in some cases even deliberately stirred up, by groups whose political insecurity spurs them to hang their search for supremacy on the peg of religion or ethnicity. The most violent of them, the Muslimeen, rejected the idea of allegiance to the state entirely.
What is worse, governments pander to bigotry for the sake of votes. Gay rights are an example. The general public in this country has a tolerant if contemptuous attitude to homosexuals, and this tolerance used to be to some degree also official. The grotesque anti-gay law in the Criminal Code (five years' jail for the "abominable crime of buggery") was not enforced, except as far as sex with minors was concerned.
But when the government wanted the support of other Caricom countries in its pro-hanging campaign, our Attorney General made common cause with them in their homophobic policies, which were the result of pressure from religious bodies objecting to gay cruises. As a result the Attorney General was constrained to refuse the inclusion of gay rights in the Equal Opportunities Bill. Now the government, to conciliate its own bigoted supporters, has included the victimless crime of "buggery" in the Anti-Crime Bill as one of the "three-strikes and out" offences.
Biomedical concerns evoke the same dishonest reactions. The Prime Minister has recently proclaimed the Government to be "against abortion, period", in defiance of the moderate request in the Draft Gender Policy for debate on the subject. Six years ago a previous Government attempted to foreclose all dialogue on moral issues arising out of medical advances.
Other countries actively promote national debate, and set up National Bioethics Commissions and the like, before attempting to legislate on these extremely complicated and vital issues. With no dialogue and no warning, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, in a "Human Reproduction and Genetic Technologies Bill" five pages long, sought to forbid cloning of human beings, heritable genetic alterations of human ova, sperm, zygotes or embryos, in vitro fertilisation for research; surrogate motherhood or even implanting an egg from one woman in the womb of another; and sex-testing of foetuses other than by ultrasonography.
This was 1999, long before the Vatican made world headlines by meddling in the Italian referendum on the same issues, thereby fatally retarding Italian medical research. Evidently, the T&T Vatican had tried to slip its prejudices past the country before the issues achieved prominence here, and the government, as usual, obliged.
In the event, the Bill was withdrawn, largely, I like to think, because of two articles I wrote.
In the recent transfusion case, the decision of the court to permit the transfusion was rapid and fully in accord with the duties assumed by the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to wit:
1. States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life.
2. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.
States Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services.
States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.
This is not the first time in this country that a court order has been obtained to permit transfusion, and I am informed that it has happened in Barbados too. I am told, also, that there is a branch of Jehovah's witnesses which does not object to transfusion. So the issue of life-saving transfusion against parents' wishes is probably settled as far as it ever will be. But there are others that are not: what about euthanasia and assisted suicide? What about force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike? And all the issues that have troubled, and are troubling other countries as a result of advances in biomedical techniques will sooner or later have to be tackled by us as well. What is essential is that they be tackled in a less hasty and dishonest manner than in 1999.
These are not problems solvable solely by an increase of information and promotion of rationality. Religious objections to blood transfusion do not pretend to be based on reason and cannot therefore be refuted by it. But it is no less vital, at the social level, that they be approached in an atmosphere of reasonableness, optimism and above all trust.
Religious groups exist within society, not against it. They cannot fail to understand that the exercise by the State of its authority to save the life of a child in opposition to one element of their creed is manifestly motivated by compassion. If they are wise enough they will accept that if some of the ideals of their faith are not incorporated into the law, many are.
Compassion, on the whole, is one of them, and disagreement on the extent of its application need not and must not be widened by stubborn militancy. There will always be extremes. But extremes do not have to be violent or even intransigent. Disagreement must not be equated by the State with insurgency or considered by the disappointed as a valid excuse for disaffection.
In the development of trust, government, community and religious leaders have a vital role to play. They must avoid exploiting ignorance, suppressing information or even being thought to do so. Ongoing dialogue and peaceful compromise rather than acrimony and confrontation are the only viable approach, and therefore the touchstone of a progressive society. Governments, in particular, must hold themselves rigidly aloof from religious controversies. That is why an early and essential stage in the process must be the firm assertion, in word and deed, of a secular State.
Moral questions are not isolated from politics, but a part of it, insofar as politics is defined as the attempt to build a just and compassionate society.
In multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, reason, tolerance, dialogue and trust are all the more necessary. The final test is this: if the State imposes on us a decision contrary to our beliefs, are we prepared to accept it, however reluctantly, because we realise that we are the State?|