The Bush Administration is reviewing the draft of a regulation that would require hospitals receiving federal funds to respect the religious freedom of health care workers by ensuring that workers do not have to participate in medical procedures that they consider morally objectionable. The regulation is especially concerned with the performance of abortion and the administration of “Plan B” morning after pills, which are considered emergency contraception by some but an abortifacient by others.

Critics of the proposal were quick to argue that the new regulation would make it more difficult for women to procure these entirely legal services. Many public hospitals have several hundred employees (the Washington Hospital Center, the closest hospital to me, has 1,600 employees) so it is hard to believe that there would not be someone on staff to administer Plan B when it was needed. A Catholic hospital might have a harder time finding someone who would not mind administering the test, but how many people seeking an abortifacient would head to a Catholic hospital in the first place?

It is odd the way pro-choice groups suddenly are not so concerned about government coercion as they were when they were arguing for Roe. Then, it was the height of tyranny for the government to tell a woman what she could or could not do with her body. But, now these same groups want the government to tell hospital workers, men and women, what they must and must not do. Evidently, you can legislate morality after all, so long as it is the morality of NOW and NARAL.

A similar controversy developed in my home state of Connecticut in 2007. There, the legislature passed a law that did the opposite of the Bush’s administration’s proposal: The new law required Catholic hospitals to provide Plan B. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference opposed the law vigorously, but when it passed over their objections, the bishops caved, announcing that they would comply with the new law. The bishops claimed that so long as there was no ovulation test beforehand, there was some doubt as to whether or not the drugs would be tantamount to an abortion. “To administer Plan B pills without an ovulation test is not an intrinsically evil act,” the bishops said in their statement.

It is difficult to know whether or not the Connecticut Catholic bishops are right on the biology of the matter. They received a great deal of criticism from a variety of sources on that score. Normally, this kind of casuistry does not sit well with American sensibilities but it is perfectly permissible in the Catholic moral tradition. What is clear, however, is that the reversal by the bishops confused everyone in Connecticut about what the Church stood for and the nation’s bishops are well-advised to get out front on this issue nationally to prevent similar legislation. And, to do so with greater coherence than their Connecticut brethren mustered.

These laws are not, ultimately, about biology. This is not, as some pro-choice advocates intone, an instance of the Bush administration attacking science. At issue is the coercion of employees to perform an act that violates not only their own conscience but what was not so long ago the heart of the Hippocratic oath all medical professionals took. No one, least of all a doctor or a nurse, should be forced to perform what they consider akin to murder. I am no libertarian, but I worry about the reach of government when such laws as Connecticut’s Plan B was passed.

Religious freedom is a constitutional value. It has an equal or greater claim on our political system and on the nation’s political imagination than does any right to contraception or abortion. We Catholics should not be shy about insisting on laws that allow us to do our good works in our own way.

Michael Sean Winters 

Comments

Anonymous | 8/3/2008 - 10:15pm
When I decided to become a conscientious objector to military service in the U.S. Navy, I submitted my "request" and received an honorable discharge...and left my work. Those who have "conscientious objections" to their medical work should seek employment elsewhere.
Anonymous | 8/4/2008 - 3:29am
I find the issue of religious freedom compelling being person of faith in Graduate School which is often hostile to the idea of faith. While the position is wholly valid, that of not coercing individuals to act against their conscience and beliefs, what if they clash against the values of the person obtaining services as well? What if no one is staffed at the moment the person seeks Plan B? Yes it is a quibble and unlikely to happen. But simply letting moral dictates of an individual preside over the rights of an individual or group can endanger freedom. You have to only remember that syphilis medication was denied to African Americans because it was believed to be ineffective for them by physicians. Equal Access has to be protected. And I find it hypocritical that the same application of the hypocratic oath isn't being pursued by this Administration on the death penalty. No doctor is ever invovled in the death penalty, yet we still commit it. For us as a people of faith to take a stand I believe we must be morally unambiguous.