by Maureen K. Bailey
October 8, 2004
Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman recently took aim at Catholic health care providers -- and at laws that protect them from forced participation in abortion. She attacks "the 'conscience clauses' being pushed to let healthcare workers and whole institutions opt out of providing healthcare, especially reproductive care, on religious grounds." In conclusion Goodman asks: "At some point doesn't religious practice become medical malpractice?"
Goodman is practicing some journalistic malpractice of her own.
It is not medical malpractice for healthcare providers to decline providing elective procedures, especially controversial elective procedures like abortion. The American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, and American Pharmacists Association all support the right of providers to decline participating in any procedure to which they have a conscientious objection.
Goodman tries to position abortion as a mainstream medical practice which only "faith-based" providers reject. Yet for over two decades, the federal government itself has not funded abortions except in the rarest of circumstances. 88% of all hospitals, religious and non-religious, do not participate in abortions.
Goodman neglects these facts to wield a very deliberate tool of pro-abortion groups: Framing the conscience issue as "religion versus medicine" or "religion versus women's health." The Catholic Church becomes a convenient target, to distract attention from the reality that few health care providers (religious or secular) are comfortable with destruction of human life as "medicine."
Goodman's suggestion that Catholic health care has always been on the margin of mainstream medicine is especially ignorant. It was Catholic religious orders, particularly those headed by women, that helped build the health care system in this country. And Catholic health care ethics is right in line with the Hippocratic oath that created medicine as a profession, especially in rejecting abortion and in teaching that first of all we must do our patients no harm.
Goodman also seems unaware that conscience clauses were enacted in most states thirty years ago, after the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. Today forty-seven states protect the right of health care providers to decline involvement in abortion. Recently, however, pro-abortion groups have launched attacks on this right, exploiting loopholes in statutes and engaging in a new public relations strategy that Goodman exemplifies. In some states, pro-abortion groups have managed to force hospitals to open their doors for late-term abortions, and have blocked cost-saving mergers that would improve patient care when the resulting entity would not be performing abortions.
Fortunately, Congress is aware of these egregious cases and has begun to respond. The House of Representatives has passed the Hyde/Weldon Conscience Protection Amendment, to prohibit governmental discrimination against health care providers who object to participating in abortions. The Amendment is now part of the House-approved Labor/HHS appropriations bill, which awaits action by a Conference Committee to work out differences between House and Senate versions of the bill.
It seems that some abortion advocates don't really believe in "freedom of choice," when that requires respecting the freedom of those who disagree with them on abortion. The fate of this Amendment will show whether that's true of abortion advocates in the Senate as well.
Maureen K. Bailey is a public policy analyst with the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops