The screaming was so loud, you would have thought that the Trump administration had overturned Roe v. Wade. It hadn’t, of course. But it had directed needed attention at the existing legal protection that allows doctors and nurses to refuse to participate in abortions without fear of firing or other job sanctions. This protection is sometimes called “medical conscience rights.”
The occasion for the uproar? The Department of Health and Human Services announced its intention to create a new office of Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to enforce medical conscience. It is worth noting that this proposed action will not change the law. But it will revitalize enforcement efforts after years of the Obama administration’s hostility toward religious liberty generally and medical conscience rights specifically. Indeed, the newly created enforcement office will put medical employers on notice that the current administration considers medical conscience rights to be fundamental. As the HHS press release put it:
The creation of the new division will provide HHS with the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom, the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights.
In a country with a long and venerable history of honoring conscientious objection and protecting the free exercise of religion, one would think this step would be met by applause. But for some, it was akin to a declaration of social war. The Massachusetts Medical Society sniffed in opposition:
As physicians, we have an obligation to ensure patients are treated with dignity while accessing and receiving the best possible care to meet their clinical needs. We will not and cannot, in good conscience, compromise our responsibility to heal the sick based upon a patient’s racial identification, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, disability, immigration status, or economic status.
The New York Times was equally condemning. In an editorial titled, “The White House Puts the Bible Before the Hippocratic Oath,” the editorialists warned hyperbolically:
The decisions may make it more difficult for teenagers wanting to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, for gay men looking to prevent HIV and even for women seeking breast exams or pap smears.
Please. No one who supports a robust protection of medical conscience advocates compromising the physician’s responsibility to “heal the sick.” No one wants to prevent women from obtaining cancer screenings. Nor do supporters of medical conscience seek to authorize doctors and nurses to discriminate against individuals.
Rather, medical conscience prevents doctors and nurses from being forced to act in opposition either to their religious beliefs – e.g., commit a grievous sin – or to their moral consciences by being forced to participate in morally objectionable procedures, such as taking innocent human life in abortion, assisted suicide, or lethal injection euthanasia. It could also protect medical professionals from being required to administer hormones to inhibit puberty in adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria – a controversial recent innovation that the American College of Pediatricians has called “mass experimentation.” That opinion is becoming heterodox in the field, but surely no doctor should be forced in an elective procedure to act in a way that he believes actively harms the patient. The same goes for physicians who object to participating in sex-change surgeries based on the belief that sex is biologically determined or that it is wrong to remove healthy organs. Conscious protections should also apply to a doctor or nurse who objects to participating in infant circumcision based on a moral objection. And surely no doctor should be forced to participate in an execution, not even the administrative act of declaring the condemned prisoner dead after the execution.
People of good will can hold radically divergent moral beliefs, including about legal medical services and procedures. The stakes in this controversy are very high. As I have written here before, there is a concerted effort underway to drive pro-life and Hippocratic Oath-believing doctors, nurses, and other professionals out of medicine – a lamentable potentiality. We need increased comity and tolerance for those medical professionals who object to reigning moral paradigms and hold to sanctity-of-life ethics. The new HHS office represents a positive step toward achieving that end.
Post Script: The best and most efficient way to protect medical conscience would be for the states and the federal government to allow medical conscience rights to be enforced via private causes of action in civil court, which is not currently allowed generally. I will discuss that idea in a future column.