My Letter to HHS on Conscience Rights

Since the days of Hippocrates, freedom of conscience has been an integral aspect of the medical profession. Every day, physicians make decisions that are based as much on ethics as on science. Today, a positivist and utilitarian approach to medical ethics has led to the elevation of “science” above ethics: whatever serves the perceived need of “scientific advancement” comes to override any ethical considerations.

Indeed, until recently, the refusal to perform abortions at all was considered a fundamental tenet of the authentic medical profession. In just a few short generations, however, the rules have been completely inverted so that many in society, including some in our government, are trying to require all medical professionals to provide abortion services (or refer them), forcing some doctors to violate not only their personal morals but the Hippocratic Oath itself.

Again, doctors routinely make decisions based upon ethics. A doctor may feel that a patient with chronic pain is becoming too dependent upon pain killers. A doctor may refuse to perform a particular procedure for fear of the risk to the patient’s health. I have never had a situation where I’ve been able to compel a doctor to do something that the doctor felt was against his or her professional judgement. It is unclear why, in this one area, physicians are to be forced to go against their professional medical and ethical judgements. It is unclear why people find it so difficult to just find a different doctor or pharmacist, the way anyone else does in that situation.

Professional conscience rights for doctors are a direct corollary to the conscience rights of patients and the First Amendment rights of all Americans. Let the free market reign. If certain patients want abortions and contraception, let those patients go to another service provider. Those of us whose consciences object to these practices need to have access to providers we can, in good conscience, support.

My wife refuses to go to any OB/Gyn who provides abortions. We are Catholics who practice Natural Family Planning. For all the talk of “reproductive choice,” we find little or no support among medical professionals for our particular “choice.” We have always gone to “pro-life”, non-abortion practicing physicians, but every OB/Gyn my wife has seen has had a condescending attitude towards NFP, and everyone but one has strongly pressured her to use birth control pills. Does this not constitute forcing their ethical judgements upon patients? NFP is proven to be at least as effective as the birth control pill, if not more. The newer Marquette Method has the potential to be 100% effective. Yet doctors and nurses simply say, with deep-seated contempt, “Rhythm doesn’t work,” and refuse to listen to the science in this case.

We want the choice, as a couple, to seek out medical practitioners who do not engage in abortion or contraception, or who at least will treat our “reproductive choice” with respect. As patients and as parents, we refuse to receive any treatment derived from embryonic stem cell research or fetal tissue research. This includes conscientious objection to certain vaccinations. It is very difficult to find pediatricians who support our conscience rights as parents. Removing the conscience rights of physicians will, in turn, take away our conscience rights, as well.

Many Americans are concerned that the principal agenda of the party that currently holds the presidency and majority in both houses of Congress is to destroy our fundamental right of conscience, our first amendment freedom of religion. We are deeply afraid of being forced to violate our most basic values, and this motion to take away the conscience rights of medical practitioners seems to be the first step towards such a “slippery slope.”

It would seem that those who claim to be “pro-choice” would support the individual freedom of choice of both professionals and patients.

John C. Hathaway

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