Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Conscience Under Assault

The International Herald Tribune carried a story, “Last-minute Bush abortion ruling causes furor,” yesterday about Bush Administration (Department of Health and Human Services) plans to put in place a conscience clause for health care workers at institutions that receive federal money. As I understand the IHT story, the rule would state that if a facility receives federal funds, it cannot discriminate against employees who refuse in conscience to participate in morally problematic procedures such as abortion and sterilization.

Note that the rule is not in place, it’s just been proposed, and is opposed by President-elect Obama, who will likely dismantle the rule once he takes office.

Why is this important to us as Catholics? Because the alternative is for Catholic healthcare workers to either violate their conscience by cooperating in acts that the Church teaches are immoral, or risk unemployment in their field. An example would be a pharmacist who objects to providing oral contraceptives based on their abortifacient effects. As it stands now, that pharmacist’s employer can give him the ultimatum to either dispense the pills (against his conscience) or be fired. I happen to think that the employer should be allowed to discriminate against his employees in how they service his patrons. So, I suppose that means that I would oppose the specific rule proposed by HHS.

However, there are broader implications at the employer level. If the owner of the pharmacy doesn’t want his pharmacy to dispense contraceptives, he should be free not to do that. If a physician or a gynecologist, in her practice, does not want to perform sterilizations, she should be free not to. It is at this level that the battle is being fought and needs to be won. The government will use the power of the purse to try to force providers to make the full range of “reproductive health” options available. So, if a Catholic hospital refuses to perform abortions or sterilizations, no government money (think Medicare and Medicaid) will be given to that hospital. So, if someone with a broken leg goes to the emergency room at a Catholic-run hospital, the hospital will still be required to treat the individual, but if the person is uninsured, the hospital won’t get any money, unless it has already compromised its Catholic identity. Under a scheme of universal health care, all medical payments will be tainted with government money, so Catholics will be forced out of healthcare completely (unless, that is, they’ve agreed to act as though they are not Catholic).

It’s not enough to refer a patient to another physician or facility who is willing to do the evil deed. That too, will land the conscientious Catholic in trouble with the courts.

This is why judges matter. I fear that the next four years will not be good for individual liberties.

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