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GUEST COMMENTARY: An unconscionable oversight

WASHINGTON (RNS) Conscience protection — or perhaps, the lack of it — is a key issue in health care reform. Forcing someone to violate his or her conscience is an act of violence no civilized society should tolerate. U.S. Catholic bishops are seeking conscience protection for two groups: Catholic and other institutions (especially health care […]

WASHINGTON (RNS) Conscience protection — or perhaps, the lack of it — is a key issue in health care reform. Forcing someone to violate his or her conscience is an act of violence no civilized society should tolerate.

U.S. Catholic bishops are seeking conscience protection for two groups: Catholic and other institutions (especially health care institutions), so they can to be true to their mission; and all health care personnel, so they can be true to their conscience.

The most obvious concern is the right of hospitals not to perform abortions. The Weldon Amendment, which is attached to the annual Health and Human Services funding bill, protects hospitals that do not provide, refer for or pay for abortions. Even with that protection, however, this right of conscience is threatened when abortion-rights groups campaign against hospital mergers in which a Catholic hospital assumes responsibility for a struggling hospital that is not Catholic.

Some groups fight such mergers unless the “right” to an abortion can be guaranteed at that hospital or close by. Sometimes, the pressure causes mergers to fail — sad proof that some would rather risk seeing all health care denied in order to keep abortion in the neighborhood.

Any health care reform bill needs to include conscience protections for institutions that provide (hospitals) and purchase (religious groups) health care. The Catholic Church, with more than 600 health care institutions serving millions annually, is a major health care provider in the United States. Conscience protection benefits not just them, but the nation’s entire health care system and the patients it serves.

We also need to guarantee conscience protection for individuals. Wherever they work, those who find abortion morally repugnant should not have to participate in it. You don’t have to be a moral theologian to feel abortion is wrong. Some things are instinctive, and some are enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. No medical personnel should be forced to take another human being’s life.

It can be hard, sometimes impossible, to stand up to pressure from peers and supervisors; if an individual feels his or her job is on the line, the pressure can be enormous.

A case in point: According to an Associated Press report from Ohio last September, Dr. Carmelita Bautista was pressed into service by a prison execution team to help find a vein so a lethal injection could be administered. This is something medical ethicists frown upon and the American Medical Association bans. Despite this, Bautista apparently felt she had to agree to the request.

Apparently she felt uneasy, noting later that she’d never done anything like that because, she said, “we are supposed to help people who are sick.” Nevertheless, she did what she was asked and tried — unsuccessfully — to help. It was a casual request — to just find a vein — and she apparently was unaware she was really assisting at an execution until she drew closer to the death house door.

Who else might be casually asked to violate conscience just a little? A medical student? A nurse? someone lower down the totem pole? Such people, no matter where they work, need to know they have the protection of law, and it should be written into the health reform bill.

Resistance to conscience rights makes one pause. Do government leaders fear we’ll be overrun by citizens with consciences?

The battle over conscience rights extends into other areas. Should a doctor be forced to prescribe drugs he objects to, such as those that disrupt a healthy reproductive system? Should pharmacists be forced to fill a prescription for what they know could cause an abortion? We’re talking about professionals, here, not vending machines.

The poet John Donne said that “no man is an island,” that “any man’s death diminishes me.” Conversely, one might say that “everyone’s living by conscience enhances me,” for we are not isolated individuals but live together in society.

Defense of the right to live by one’s conscience — be it an individual’s or an institution’s — helps guarantee quality health care reform for all. The solution is simple: defense of conscience rights needs to be written into the health care reform bill.

(Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

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