She ran an argument that the primary aim of society is to promote autonomy and that it is therefore the duty of politicians and doctors, regardless of their own conscience, to allow individuals to choose for themselves whether to have an abortion.
Dr Cannold is a follower of liberal autonomy theory. She writes:
An autonomous person is one who is free to direct her life according to her own values. It would be hard to overestimate the role autonomy ... plays in the value systems of contemporary Australian society ...
The idea appears to be as follows: a society is made up of individuals each with his own values; the freedom to autonomously follow our own values is paramount; therefore, what matters is that the state remains neutral or unbiased on moral issues, so that this freedom is not compromised.
What's wrong with such an approach to morality? First, it's not true in practice that the liberal state remains neutral on moral issues.
In all Western countries, liberal autonomy itself has become the value coercively imposed on society. If a traditional practice is thought to clash with autonomy, it is acted against in various ways. In Scandinavia, for instance, the state has acted deliberately to deconstruct the traditional family and traditional sex roles - regardless of whether they are held as values by individuals. Nor are any Western states neutral when it comes to traditional Western identities; we are supposed to sign on to multiculturalism, regardless of our individual values.
Even when it comes to issues of "personal" morality, the effect of autonomy theory isn't neutral. If you believe that the highest good is a freedom to choose in any direction, then acting against moral restrictions becomes "empowering". A moral culture in a liberal society will therefore tend to be transgressive rather than neutral.
Similarly, the moral culture is likely to be permissive. Individuals in a liberal society will begin to believe that if they freely choose a certain behaviour, it becomes moral.
And so, for instance, you find the morality of burlesque dancing discussed in a daily paper as follows:
DeLuxe said burlesque ... represented a rebellion against the restrictive morality of the time ... Modern burlesque performers are clearly in charge of their own destiny ... "The woman doing it is completely in control of her own sexuality. She decides." (Kansas City Star, July 2008)
A rebellion against morals becomes heroic; and as long as I decide, and am in control, then I am acting morally. These are the kinds of ideas that are fostered by a morality based on autonomy theory. They are not neutral in their effect on moral values.
There is another way that autonomy theory fails to be neutral in its effects. Morality is thought of not in terms of what is good, or what is right or wrong, but in terms of "values". This word suggests that we are following something subjective, something of value to us, rather than something which is objectively good. It also suggests an equality in the moral beliefs held by individuals: what one person values is as important to them as what another person values.
This has to have a certain effect on the moral culture of a society. If we only talk about equally valid, subjective values, then moral belief itself loses status and there isn't likely to be the same level of moral restraint or self-discipline in society. Nor will a community be as likely to hold to, and identify with, a moral ideal.
So autonomy theory doesn't in practice create a neutral arena for individuals to pursue their own values. Nor would most people really want such a neutral arena to exist. Would we really want the state to remain neutral and allow individuals to pursue their own values, if these values included polygamy? Group marriage? Public nudity? The sale of heroin?
The reality is that every society functions with a view of what is moral and what isn't and liberal society is no different. A liberal society does not simply allow individuals to follow their own values. Far from being neutral, a liberal society tends to be more intrusive than traditional societies in enforcing a moral view; liberal societies have, for instance, gone further than most others in setting up laws punishing "speech" crimes or "thought" crimes.
The real question then is not whether a society should take a view of what is moral or what isn't, as all societies inevitably do this. The real question is what this moral view should be and how it should be decided.
I don't believe the moral view should be the liberal one. Autonomy is important, but it doesn't work well if we take it to be the highest good in society. As explained above, its effect on the moral culture of society is overly transgressive and permissive; it also delegitimises too many important things as immoral, including all those aspects of life which are "predetermined" rather than "self-determined", including sex distinctions, ethnicity and traditional family life.
The alternative? Each generation inherits a view of the good, which is then tested against experience and against our innate sense of what is right or wrong. At times, certain views of morality will be contested in society, others will remain uncontroversial. There is no certain way (i.e. no formulaic way) of getting to a right answer; there is no "principle" acting like a scientific principle to explain how a society is to determine moral issues.
But still a society will arrive at a moral ideal. Hopefully, this moral ideal will work to support 'the better angels of our nature' when we make moral decisions. Hopefully too it will wisely guide younger people, until they have enough life experience to judge the real harm of certain behaviours.