William Batz, who has a doctorate in philosophy and is the secretary for social concerns at the Diocese of Pittsburgh, recently answered questions from the Pittsburgh Catholic on the Obama administration’s announcement that it would begin a process to rescind Health and Human Services regulations governing conscience protections for health care workers.
The regulations in question prohibit recipients of federal funds from coercing professionals to perform abortions or sterilizations. They require those who accept federal dollars to certify that they do not discriminate against these professionals of conscience.
The need for such regulations became evident over the last two years in response to various attempts to override freedom of religion and conscience and to compel health care professionals to offer procedures that violated their moral principles.
Late in 2007, for example, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued Ethics Opinion No. 385, calling on OB-GYNs to disregard their moral or religious objections to abortion, instructing them to perform or refer for abortions, or risk having their certification to practice revoked. In a perverse twist of logic, a physician who chooses to obey his moral conscience risks being found guilty of “unethical” conduct. Approximately 2,000 OB-GYNs in the United States have identified themselves as pro-life and face penalties for following their conscience.
Threats against religiously affiliated hospitals, notably Catholic hospitals, that refuse to permit abortion and sterilization have also been occurring. The Catholic Church is the largest nonprofit provider of health care services in the United States. One in six patients is served in a Catholic hospital. The church’s stance on abortion and sterilization is clear.
Still, the California attorney general ruled that hospitals in that state have a “duty” to perform abortions, while legislators in California and New York have entertained bills to strip hospitals of their licenses if they fail to meet standards for “women’s health services.” Abortion is redefined as “basic health care,” and, as a result, hospitals that do not provide abortion are deemed to fail “health care” standards. HHS Provider Conscience regulations were enacted in late 2008 precisely to counteract these types of attacks on freedom of conscience in the health care industry.
The ancient Hippocratic oath has provided the basic ethical standard of the medical profession for more than 2,000 years. Its first admonition is to “do no harm,” but the oath goes further to express an unequivocal prohibition against abortion, too. By repealing conscience protection regulations, the Obama administration signals that the politics of abortion-on-demand trumps the medical profession’s ancient Hippocratic oath, as well as constitutional principles of freedom of religion and conscience.
Some ethicists in health care have also pointed out that, if a physician can be forced to perform abortion as a matter of professional “ethics,” then there is no logical reason why health care professionals cannot also be required to provide assisted-suicide “services,” questionable fertility treatments and the like.
In a letter dated March 16, Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged Catholics in the United States to tell the Obama administration to retain HHS regulations that preserve the conscience rights of doctors, nurses and all health care professionals.
“I ask you please to let the government know that you want conscience protections to remain strongly in place,” wrote the cardinal. “In particular, let the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington know that you stand for protection of conscience.”
The cardinal’s plea to U.S. Catholics can be viewed on YouTube at www.usccb.org/conscience protection.
The public has a right to comment on rescission of conscience regulations by April 9, 2009. For further information, or to submit your comments, go to the NCHLA Action Alert at: http://nchla.org/actiondisplay.asp?ID=271.
This article appeared in the March 27, 2009, issue of the Pittsburgh Catholic.