Religious Liberty Facing Rough Road in Health Care
By Father John Flynn
ROME, 4 MARCH 2007 (ZENIT)
Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the academy, described as an
"emergency" the current situation regarding the formation of the
conscience in subjects involving human life.
In his address, posted in Italian on the Vatican's Web page, Bishop
Sgreccia explained that a democratic society should allow sufficient
space for the expression of a person's liberty and responsibility in
living out key social values. Defending human life is the first of these
values that are at the core of any society, he argued.
Bishop Sgreccio added that until recently conscientious objection on
life issues was limited to the matter of abortion. In more recent years,
however, the field has greatly expanded, with the addition of issues
such as euthanasia, abortive pills and the use of embryos in research.
In fact, a recent survey carried out in the United States illustrated
the importance many physicians place on the role of conscience. A study
carried out by researchers at the University of Chicago found that about
1 out of 7 doctors feel they have no ethical obligation to inform
patients about medical treatments that the physicians oppose on moral
grounds, the Baltimore Sun reported Feb. 8.
The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the survey.
The treatments mentioned ranged from abortion to euthanasia, and
prescribing contraceptives for adolescents.
Dr. David Stevens, head of the Christian Medical Association, commented
on the survey in a press release issued Feb. 9. He noted that the study
suggested many doctors may feel pressured to violate their ethical
integrity by referring patients to other physicians who will perform the
morally objectionable practices.
"We need laws that protect physicians' rights of conscience, and we need
education to encourage doctors to stand firm on strong moral and ethical
principles," said Stevens.
An example of the pressures doctors are facing was quickly provided by
the New York Times. In an editorial Feb. 13, the paper admitted that
doctors have a right to not carry out morally objectionable practices,
but denied their right to not present such practices as a valid option
for their patients to consider.
"Any doctors who cannot talk to patients about legally permitted care
because it conflicts with their values should give up the practice of
medicine," was the editorial's harsh conclusion.
Not only doctors, but Catholic organizations face increasing pressure.
Last year the Court of Appeals in the state of New York ruled that
social service agencies run by the Catholic Church must provide health
insurance coverage for contraceptives to their employees, the Associated
Press reported Oct. 19. The decision affected Catholic Charities and
nine other groups.
Richard Barnes, speaking for the Catholic organizations involved, argued
that the conflict was not over contraception, but about religious
liberty. In comments quoted by the New York Times on Oct. 20, Barnes
said he feared that the judgment would lead the state to make laws even
more offensive to religion.
Pharmacists in trouble
Another facet of the conflicts over conscience regards pharmacists. In
recent years they have frequently run into conflicts when it comes to
providing contraceptives and abortion pills. In one judgment last year,
a federal judge upheld the legitimacy of Wal-Mart's dismissal of a
Catholic pharmacist who refused to fill prescriptions for
contraceptives, reported the Minneapolis Star Tribune on June 2. Judge
John Shabaz dismissed a lawsuit brought by Neil Noesen, fired from his
post at a Wal-Mart store in Onalaska, Wisconsin.
On Aug. 23 the Washington Times newspaper reported that in nearly half
of the nation's legislatures, bills had been introduced in the current
session to allow pharmacists not to fill prescriptions for so-called
emergency contraception, which are known abortifacients, or birth
control medicines based on their religious or moral objections.
According to information on the Web site of the National Conference of
State Legislatures, four U.S. states
Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota
have passed laws allowing a pharmacist to refuse to dispense emergency
contraception drugs. In addition, Colorado, Florida, Maine and Tennessee
have broad refusal clauses that do not specifically mention pharmacists.
By contrast, Illinois has passed an emergency rule obliging pharmacists
to give out contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
In California, pharmacists have a legal duty to dispense prescriptions,
including contraceptives, and can only refuse to do so if their employer
approves the refusal and the woman can still access her prescription in
a timely manner. The information on the Web site was current as of last
Catholic hospitals criticized
In Canada, Catholic hospitals faced criticism last year on the issue of
sterilizations. According to a Sept. 27 report in the National Post
newspaper, St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, decided
to stop performing tubal ligations.
After the decision patients filed complaints with the Saskatchewan Human
Rights Commission, and, according to the article, opponents of the move
are considering taking legal action.
Since 2001, after a human rights complaint, the hospital had carried out
tubal ligations in some cases. But last June the hospital's board
decided to stop the procedure. Some of the operations were being done
purely for contraceptive reasons, declared Shirley McNeil, the
hospital's chief executive officer, to the National Post.
The issue of moral objections to some medical procedures has also
recently affected some Catholic institutions in Australia. The John
James Memorial Hospital, located in the national capital Canberra, was
bought last year by the Little Company of Mary Health Care.
After the ownership change, the hospital stopped providing certain
services to the Canberra Fertility Center. In an article dated Jan. 9,
the newspaper The Australian reported that there were concerns over the
effect the spreading influence of Catholic institutions is having on
On Jan. 12, the newspaper returned to the subject, reporting that the
president of the Australian Medical Association, Mukesh Haikerwal, wants
state governments to stop contracting the operation of public hospitals
to the Catholic Church unless it agrees to provide all services
including in vitro fertilizations (IVF), abortions and sterilizations.
Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, episcopal vicar for Life and
Health, commented on the matter in a report published in the Jan. 21
issue of Catholic Weekly, the Sydney archdiocesan newspaper.
He said: "The fact is that most hospitals in Australia
including state hospitals, Catholic public hospitals, and private
— do not offer IVF services.
"People do not go to Catholic hospitals if they are looking for abortion
or sterilization or IVF."
Further discussion on the role of Catholic institutions followed a
report by the Australian newspaper on Jan. 11 on a code of ethical
standards published by the organization Catholic Health Australia. The
code recommends that Catholic hospitals not refer women who have been
raped to crisis centers where they will be given the morning-after pill,
which is a known abortifacient.
In his address on Feb. 24 to participants in the congress organized by
the Pontifical Academy for Life, Benedict XVI declared that Christians
are called to confront the continual attacks on human life.
The fact many now have to struggle for the right to defend human life is
a measure of how much society has changed in the short time since
abortion was legalized. A change whose fruits are still being collected.