Conscientious objection: We must continue to protect it for health care workers Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Mar. 05, 2009 -- 1:00 AM

Many of us are aware of the term “conscientious objector” as it applies to armed service. During the Vietnam War, for example, some men subject to the draft declared themselves conscientious objectors. They performed alternate kinds of service rather than fight as soldiers.

Editor's View
Mary C. Uhler

In this case, a conscientious objector (CO) is defined by various dictionaries as an individual who, on religious, moral, or ethical grounds, refuses to participate as a combatant in war or, in some cases, to take any role that would support a combatant organization in the armed forces.

The international definition of conscientious objection officially broadened in 1998, when the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights officially recognized that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections.”

In the field of health care, there has also been the opportunity for health care workers to become conscientious objectors involving certain medical procedures. For over 30 years in the United States, health care workers have been able to refuse to participate in certain procedures they object to on moral grounds.

Regulation codified existing laws

Just before President George W. Bush left office in January of 2009, the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued a regulation codifying several existing federal statues prohibiting discrimination against health professionals who decline to participate in abortions or other medical procedures because of religious or other moral objections.

But on February 27, 2009, the Obama administration said it plans to review this regulation. After the review, it will be published in the Federal Register, opening a 30-day period for public comment.

Fighting threats to conscience rights

The Catholic Medical Association (CMA) had already begun combatting threats to the conscience rights of health care professionals, reported a Catholic News Service article. The CMA, with some 1,100 members nationwide, has joined with the Christian Medical Association and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists to intervene legally against lawsuits filed by attorneys general of eight states, Planned Parenthood of America, and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.

The lawsuits seek to overturn the federal regulation issued in January. Without the regulation, members of the CMA and the other two groups say health care workers face the threat of being forced to perform abortions, assist in abortions, train for abortions, and refer individuals for abortions.

“Physicians must defend their right to practice medicine in accordance with their conscience. It’s a very important principle that every physician must support,” John Brehany executive director of the CMA, told Catholic News Service.

Besides abortions, doctors or other health care professionals could be forced to participate in such things as the executions of death-row prisoners, he said

Get involved to protect rights

Brehany has encouraged members of the CMA to get involved personally in defending conscience rights by making the case before their local medical societies, through letters to the editor, and in peer-to-peer contact.

Besides those involved in the health care field, I encouraged concerned citizens to study the conscience protection issue and be prepared to comment on it during the 30-day period when it is announced.

The regulation issued in January was essentially designed to increase awareness of three laws already on the books, the first dating to 1973, regarding conscience protection for health care workers. Hospitals and other health care institutions that receive federal funds are also covered by the regulation as well.

The regulation is “absolutely essential,” said Deirdre McQuade, of the Office of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said the regulation implements long-standing laws on the books. “They’re not expanding those laws, they’re not changing them, they’re not introducing new material except to raise awareness about their existence,” she said.

McQuade points out that conscience protection is a matter of basic human and civil rights. It is a tradition in our country that must be protected.

Please keep updated on what’s happening with the Obama administration’s review and be ready to support efforts to keep rules on conscience protection in place.