By Catholic News Service
Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., listens to a question from a Catholic News Service reporter during an interview in Washington March 24. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, spoke with Catholic News Service's Nancy Frazier O'Brien March 24 about the Obama administration's move to rescind a Department of Health and Human Services regulation guaranteeing conscience protections for health care workers and institutions. Here is a transcript of the interview:
CNS: Why should the average Catholic be concerned about a somewhat obscure regulation of the Department of Health and Human Services?
Bishop Murphy: You're right. The regulations from HHS are regulations that came from the Bush administration in the last period of their governing. And what they are are applications of the statutes. Now the (Obama) administration says all we're doing -- with emphasis on all -- is taking away the regulations. However, legal experts tell us that the regulations are totally in conformity with the statutes. So to take back the regulations raises a real issue, because the statutes are intended to protect human rights -- rights of conscience and rights of freedom of religion. So why should everyone be concerned about this? Because if one person's rights can be compromised, everybody's rights can be compromised.
CNS: But won't Congress still be able to guarantee conscience protections via the statutes if the regulation is overturned?
Bishop Murphy: Well, that's one of those "what ifs" that doesn't make sense. If we're guaranteeing them now, why should we take them away and ask Congress to put them back? Second, there's a fallacy in this. Neither the United States government or the Congress or the administration gives us rights. We have rights ... because we're human beings and no state has the right to compromise or interfere with human rights.
There's a real problem in that kind of thinking -- that somehow or another the government has given us something and the government can take it away. The government did not give us rights and the government is acting wrongly if it attempts to try to regulate rights in the sense of compromising anyone's rights. All the government can do is foster and guarantee and defend rights. Otherwise it's a false government.
Can I tell you a good story? When I was meeting with (Fidel) Castro in Cuba several years ago, I raised the issue to him about human rights and he said, "I guarantee all human rights so long as no one uses human rights against the state." It doesn't take a genius to figure out that he's not giving them human rights. The state controls. That's why the Congress is not the source of human rights.
CNS: Where do you think the next threat might come if this regulation is rescinded?
Bishop Murphy: I think that just about anything is open. Because once you compromise in one area, then you are open to be compromised in every area. And I would say for example what's going to happen with Catholic hospitals? If the government tries to say that abortion is a constitutional right, then a woman who comes to a Catholic hospital which receives government funds -- and they all do -- (if the hospital) says no (to performing an abortion), and the woman says, "But it's my right," then what do you have? So it's clear this is a very serious moment in constitutional history and in the protection of the rights and liberties of citizens.
CNS: How would you respond to those who argue that it threatens women's health to allow health care providers to decide whether to participate in abortions or other procedures that violate their consciences?
Bishop Murphy: I'm baffled by that question -- truly baffled by it. When was abortion a guarantee of anyone's health? In fact it's a direct attack not just on the health but on the life of the unborn. I just don't understand that at all. The fact is in our society I don't know any part of the United States where abortion isn't readily available for the person who wants it. And this argument about the health of the mother -- even if you were to allow, which I do not, that abortion is OK in the instance of rape and incest -- the fact of the matter objectively is that is a miniscule percentage of the abortions that are performed. They don't even have a blip in the screen, and you're still having to face the fact that abortion is the direct taking of innocent human life.
CNS: Do you think the move to rescind this regulation is an attempt to implement part of the Freedom of Choice Act without having to introduce FOCA?
Bishop Murphy: I'll tell you what my fear is. They have not introduced FOCA and I believe part of it, and I don't know this, my guess is that they received so many cards across the country from the efforts here to say "Do not have FOCA," that they've decided as a tactical strategy not to have a FOCA bill, at least at this time.
What I also believe they are trying to do -- and I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect this -- is what I call death by a thousand slices. (The) Mexico City (policy barring the use of taxpayer money to fund organizations that promote or perform abortion or forced sterilization in other countries) gets repealed. HHS regulations get turned back. And the answer is, well, those are both Bush things. No, they're not. They have to do with right of conscience and freedom of religion.
Embryonic stem-cell research is called sound science. It isn't sound science. There's never been one person who's been cured or even successfully treated with the results of embryonic stem-cell harvesting -- no one. Adult stem cells, yes. Why do they do this? I can only conclude it has to do with money. So I really do believe that they will move forward. The administration, the government plans to do this and we have to be very much on the alert.
CNS: What effect do you think the administration's effort against conscience protections could have on the upcoming debate over health care reform?
Bishop Murphy: Well, I was fortunate to have a very good discussion with Melody Barnes who is the domestic policy adviser in the White House for President Obama. We spoke about health care reform and I indicated to her the church's support of health care reform particularly to cover the poor and to see to it that everyone has the health care that they need in America. So there are real areas in which we not only would agree but we wish to be supportive for good sound health care reform.
But if health care reform means that everyone has to be lock step into the same set of guidelines or that care is rationed unreasonably or things which go against the dignity of the human person now become part of the health care provisions, then we're going to have to say no to those parts of any kind of health care bill. And we will.
CNS: What can the average person do to raise awareness about this threat?
Bishop Murphy: I'm going to answer your question with an observation. We bishops are doing our best to get people to know what the reality is. To use one example, I did my column two weeks ago on embryonic stem-cell research. It's gone to every pastor and every pastor can use that to preach. Our people need guidance. And that's one of the good things that I bless you people here in this office for. By giving people clear reporting on these issues, you are a great instrument for education. And that's a great gift that we all need to make greater use of.
I think people need to be informed and I think they have to recognize that they have to make their voices heard. The bishops by themselves cannot do it. Because you can always find some people who call themselves Catholic who don't agree with the bishops. The lay men and women of our churches, of our parishes and dioceses across the country have to be the voices of the Catholic Church today. Their voice is stronger than ours in many instances because they are the constituents, because they vote and because the politicians know they need the votes to be re-elected.
CNS: What are the most important points that people should raise in comments to HHS about the regulation?
Bishop Murphy: Do the regulations deprive someone of needed health care that is being protected by the regulation? Does the removal of the regulations put the lives of people in jeopardy? Does the removal of the regulations put professionals in the health care business in a position in which their consciences can be violated? Does removal of the regulations interfere with Catholic and other religiously based health care institutions providing sound and good health care for people who need it?
There is a litmus test here and it is a simple litmus test and it's, is this really serving the health of human beings, of people in our society, or is it simply guaranteeing that a certain group's particular agenda gets the backing of the government against the will and the right thinking of the citizens?
Editor's Note: Comments on the proposed rescission of the HHS regulations may be submitted electronically from the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at www.usccb.org/conscienceprotection. Written comments (one original and two copies) also may be mailed to: Office of Public Health and Science, Department of Health and Human Services, Attention: Rescission Proposal Comments, Hubert H. Humphrey Building, 200 Independence Ave. SW, Room 716G, Washington, DC 20201. The deadline for public comment is April 9.
03/25/2009 12:27 PM ET
Copyright (c) 2009 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops