Opposing Medical Conscience with a Soft Touch

National Review
Reproduced with permission

Wesley J. Smith

When the Department of Health and Human Services announced its intention to create a new office to emphasize the protection of medical conscience, the screaming from the usual suspects was so loud one would have thought Roe v. Wade had been overturned.

Now, The New England Journal of Medicine has published an abstruse opinion piece by one Lisa Harris, a professor concerned with “issues along the reproductive justice continuum,” whatever that means.

I bring this up because medical conscience is a burning issue for pro-life medical professionals and those who believe in Hippocratic medicine. The issue is whether doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others can be forced to participate in requested interventions with which they have a strong religious or moral objection — such as abortion, assisted suicide, and suppressing normal puberty in children with gender dysphoria.

But reading Harris, you would think it was just about “partisans” not understanding the gray areas and nuances of contentious social issues. From, “Divisions Old and New–Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS”:

I feel an angry argument building in response to HHS’s one-sided framing. But I resist it. Because my challenge these days is to avoid further entrenching polarized positions and to reject the divisiveness that poisons contemporary life. Is it possible, once again, to hold in tension seemingly opposite ideas about abortion? Can we understand abortion as both something that “stops a beating heart” and a fundamental right, rather than insisting it’s only one or the other?

But the conscience issue isn’t about whether we can all just get along and understand people have differences of opinion. It isn’t about “holding in tension seemingly opposite ideas.” It is about protecting doctors from being forced to take a human life or engage in another act in the clinical setting that is violative of their faith or moral beliefs.

Harris just doesn’t get it — or doesn’t want to:

Abortion and parenthood are not mutually exclusive; loving children and ending pregnancies are compatible in patients’ lived experience.

So is loving abortion work and questioning it: abortion providers might express an enormous sense of pride, purpose, and fulfillment in their work, and also say they felt weak-kneed the first time they saw a second-trimester abortion. Some feel sad that in different circumstances, many women would continue their pregnancies, in particular if poverty and economic strain were not issues. There is sometimes a point at which, when pressed, ardently pro-choice caregivers become uncomfortable with abortion. For some, it is a matter of pregnancy duration; for others, the circumstances of an abortion, such as sex selection.

Conversely, some caregivers whose religious beliefs lead them to strongly oppose abortion nevertheless offer assistance. Some religious nurses give medications and offer comfort, compassion, and care during an abortion because they see these tasks as shared purposes of nursing and religion. Sometimes doing so requires “sitting with discomfort in real time” and holding “the tension of two contradictory positions simultaneously.”

To which I respond, bully for them, but so what?

Harris should read Ezekiel Emanuel’s article in the NEJM from not too long ago advocating that doctors who refuse to participate in a legal procedures requested by the patient should be kicked out of medicine. No balancing of “tensions” and “sitting with discomfort in real time” for him!

And there is nothing in Harris’s piece to make me think she isn’t just as opposed to medical-conscience rights as Emanuel. She just says it indirectly, in a passive-aggressive manner, and with a softer touch.

I believe the real reason the medical establishment, the secular Left, and bioethicists like Emanuel and (I believe) Harris oppose strong legal conscience protections is precisely due to the powerful moral message sent when a respected doctor or nurse says to a patient: “No. I can’t do this thing you request. It is wrong.”

There is an old saying in pro-abortion advocacy: “If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one.”

To which I add a medical-conscience corollary: If you want an abortion, don’t force a doctor to give you one.

Sometimes comity requires living with unambiguity too.

‘Medical Conscience’ Is Becoming a Partisan Controversy

National Review
Reproduced with permission

Wesley J. Smith

Should doctors and nurses be forced to participate in interventions they find morally abhorrent or unwarranted? As one example, should ethical rules require pediatricians to medically inhibit normal puberty as demanded by parents to “treat” their child’s gender dysphoria — even if they are morally opposed to the concept and/or the supposed treatment?

Some say yes. Thus, influential bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel argues that medical professionals are obligated to accede to the patient’s right to receive legal interventions if they are generally accepted within the medical community — specifically including abortion. Emanuel stated doctors who are morally or religiously opposed, should do the procedure anyway or procure a doctor they know will accede to the patient’s demands. Either that, or get out of medicine.

Supporters of “medical conscience” argue that forcing doctors to participate in interventions they find morally abhorrent would be involuntary medical servitude. They want to strengthen existing laws that protect doctors, nurses, and pharmacists’ who refuse participation in legal interventions to which they are morally or religiously opposed.

Now, medical conscience looks to become another battlefront in our bitter partisan divide. After the Trump administration announced rules that will place greater emphasis on enforcing federal laws protecting medical conscience, Democratic state attorneys general promised to seek a court order invalidating the new rule. From the New York Law Journal story:

But 19 state attorneys general, led by New York’s Eric Schneiderman, argue that it is the patients who will be discriminated against under the proposed rule. This is particularly true, they argue, in the cases of marginalized patients who already face discrimination in trying to obtain health care, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients and male patients seeking HIV/AIDS preventative medications, according to the comments filed in opposition to the rule.

“If adopted, the proposed rule … will needlessly and carelessly upset the balance that has long been struck in federal and state law to protect the religious freedom of providers, the business needs of employers, and the health care needs of patients,” they state.

The stakes can only increase as moral controversies in health care intensify in coming years. As just two examples, some bioethicists are lobbying to enact laws that would give dementia patients the right to sign an advance directive requiring nursing homes to starve them to death once they reach a specified level of cognitive decline. There are also increasing calls to do away with the dead-donor rule in transplant medicine so that PVS patients can be organ-harvested while still alive

If these acts become legal, should doctor and nurses who practice in these fields be forced to participate? If Emanuel’s opinion prevails, the answer could be yes. If medical professionals are protected by medical conscience legal protections, the answer would be no.

Medical conscience is not just important to personally affected professionals. All of us have a stake. Think about the potential talent drain we could face if we force health-care professionals to violate their moral beliefs. Experienced doctors and nurses might well take Emanuel’s advice and get out of medicine — while talented young people who could add so much to the field may avoid entering health-care professions altogether.

Comity is essential to societal cohesion in our moral polyglot age. Medical conscience allows patients to obtain morally contentious procedures, while permitting dissenting medical professionals to stay true to their own moral and religious beliefs. I hope the Democrats’ lawsuits are thrown out of court.