Letters & Op-Eds 2008
Wisconsin State Journal

Whose rights have precedence?

You know you are having an impact when Catholic bishops break from their very busy schedules and write to legislators to decry your efforts.

Recently, I wrote to Wisconsin legislators to explain the true Catholic position on so-called conscience clauses as they considered whether to include one in a bill mandating the provision of emergency contraception to women who had been raped.

Two bishops, Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Madison and Bishop Jerome Listecki of La Crosse, broke with the neutral position of the Wisconsin conference of bishops and called for the inclusion of a conscience clause.

After hearing of my letter opposing the inclusion of what would effectively be an exemption for Catholic hospitals, they too wrote to legislators putting forward their ultra-conservative position as though it reflected what Catholic people think or believe in.

The irony of two bishops breaking with their fellow bishops over how to vote on a bill and then decrying somebody who presents an alternative viewpoint was clearly lost on them.

The reality is that Catholics overwhelmingly support offering immediate comprehensive and compassionate care to survivors of sexual assault — including dispensing emergency contraception. A 2000 poll found that three-quarters of Catholic women wanted their community hospital to provide EC to women who had been raped.

It is a sad truth, but opponents of contraception and abortion have aggressively tried to use the political process to allow health-care professionals, including emergency room doctors, nurses and even pharmacists to opt out of providing essential and standard reproductive health-care services and medications.

The bishops want us to believe that the religious freedom of Catholic hospitals would be violated if they had to provide EC to women who have been raped. It is difficult to believe that any institution has a right to religious freedom, but the fact is that women who have been raped also have rights and freedoms. Whose rights have precedence in such a situation?

In the field of medical ethics, the accepted resolution to a conflict of values is to allow the individual to act on his or her own conscience and for the institution (the hospital, clinic or pharmacy) to serve as the facilitator of all consciences.

When an institution rejects this role and instead inserts its own “conscience-based ” refusal to provide services, it violates the rights of both patients and health-care providers — who may well consider the services the institution is denying to be profoundly moral and medically necessary — to make conscience-based decisions.

While individual medical professionals may decline to provide services they consider immoral, it goes too far to grant such a blanket exemption to an institution such as a Catholic hospital.

It ‘s a real shame for the women of Wisconsin that two local bishops are forcing the same debate that has been fought and lost elsewhere. It hurts all women, not just Catholics.

O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice in Washington, D.C.

(Note: The assembly signaled their stand on Wednesday by passing the bill without the “conscience” clause by a vote of 61-35, moving it forward to the state senate for almost certain passage. During the debate, there were only two mentions of the Catholic bishops: one legislator rose to make sure everyone knew that two bishops were opposed to this bill, and another told her colleagues that the issue is not about what the Catholic bishops have to say, but the victims.)

This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2008 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal.

Catholics for Choice