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New Federal Refusal Clause Denies Women the Freedom to Exercise Their Conscience

December 10, 2004

President’s signing of Appropriations Bill measure permits institutions to discriminate and violates the religious freedom of patients

WASHINGTON, DC— President Bush’s decision to sign into law a bill that would limit the right of conscience of women seeking safe and legal abortion services is a disturbing breach of religious freedom, not a measure of non-discrimination. It will permit all hospitals, not just those controlled by the Catholic church, to deny women and doctors the right to services they deem moral and medically necessary.

There is no doubt that there are times when the conscience of an individual doctor or nurse may conflict with that of a patient. This happens in many areas of medicine from fertility treatment and end of life issues to abortion and emergency contraception. These are difficult dilemmas and Catholics for a Free Choice supports the right of individual doctors and nurses as well as others to decline to participate in services they consider immoral for themselves personally. At the same time, the law must protect the conscience of the individual woman and her doctor, who may well consider abortion and other services prohibited by the church to be profoundly moral and medically necessary.

Within the field of medical ethics, the accepted resolution to this conflict of values is to allow the individual to act on their conscience and for the institution—the hospital or clinic—to serve as the facilitator of all consciences. There has always been an ethical preference for ensuring that patients have the primary opportunity to act on their conscience. Thus, it is the obligation of the institution to provide doctors and nurses who will provide services that patients deem moral for them and are legal, while allowing those doctors and nurses who chose to opt out to do so. When this is not possible, a reasonable ethical fall back is for the institution to provide the patient with meaningful referral. Increasingly, Catholic hospitals—now with the approval of the government—are violating that ethical principle and attempting to coerce the conscience of doctors and patients. This law makes it easier for them to do so and we are opposed to it.

It is sad that the Prolife Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops supports such coercive legislation and sadder still that it misconstrues the nature of a democratic society by claiming that those who would go to court to correct this injustice are acting in undemocratic ways. The American system of democracy has always included checks and balances, with democracy ensured by a court system. The bishops’ have availed themselves of that system on many occasions, and those of us who are prochoice have done likewise. This is the American way. Sadly, the bishops increasingly reject the American democratic way and seek a theocracy and a Roman Catholic one at that.