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Federal Law on “Conscience Clauses” Needs to Be Reformed

March 19, 2008

Washington, DC – “The Bush administration’s statement on so-called conscience clauses reveals that the 2004 federal law on such clauses does not meet the needs of American women and men,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.

“In their strategy to restrict and deny reproductive healthcare over the last several years, those opposed to reproductive freedom have sought to significantly expand the concept of refusal clauses (also known as exemption clauses or conscience clauses) beyond protecting the religious and moral beliefs of healthcare providers. In effect, these clauses now serve as a means to refuse some treatments and medications to all comers. Under the guise of protecting religious freedom, antichoice activists–with the active backing of some members of the Catholic hierarchy–have aggressively used the political process to allow healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, to opt out of providing essential reproductive healthcare services and medications.

“While some have pointed to Catholic teaching to support the imposition of ever-more restrictive refusal clauses, they do not reflect the Catholic position. Catholic teaching requires due deference to the conscience of others in making decisions–meaning that healthcare providers must not dismiss the conscience of the person seeking care. If conscience truly is one’s “most secret core and his sanctuary [where] he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths,” as the Catechism states, how can anyone, or any institution for that matter, justify coercing someone into acting contrary to her or his conscience?

“The goal of any reasonable conscience clause must be to strike the right balance between the right of healthcare professionals to provide care that is in line with their moral and religious beliefs and the right of patients to have access to the medical care they need. Within the field of medical ethics, the accepted resolution to a conflict of values is to allow the individual to act on their own conscience and for the institution (the hospital, clinic or pharmacy) to serve as the facilitator of all consciences.

“There is no doubt that there are times when the conscience of an individual doctor, nurse or pharmacist may conflict with the wishes or needs of a patient. This will likely most often happen in cases related to abortion. In these situations, women seeking an abortion should not have to worry about the religious and moral beliefs of their providers interfering with the provision of the best possible care–so it is in their best interests that only medical professionals committed to providing such services do so.

“When this is not possible, a reasonable ethical fallback is for the institution to provide the patient with a meaningful referral that will ensure that the patients receive continuity of care without facing an undue burden, such as traveling long distances or encountering additional barriers to obtaining the desired services.

“If the federal government thinks that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ new guidelines violate federal law, then the law should be changed.”

For further comment, please contact Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice on (202) 986-6093.

See also the CFC publication, In Good Conscience, available online