Divisions, New and Old — Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS

Lisa H. Harris

January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of its Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, explaining that it will allow HHS’s Office of Civil Rights to “more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom” and will ensure that “no one is coerced into participating in activities that would violate their consciences, such as abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide.”1 Responses were as expected: religious conservatives hailed the new division as a needed intervention; public health and clinical leaders and advocates decried it, worrying about its impact on access to care and harm to patients.

HHS leaders’ comments to date suggest that they are uninterested in discrimination against health care providers whose consciences compel them to provide care, and uninterested in injuries to patients caused by care refusals. This framing makes conscience yet another issue dividing Americans, largely along partisan lines.


Harris LH.  Divisions, New and Old — Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS. N Eng J Med 2018 Apr 12;378(15):1369-1371. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1801154. Epub 2018 Mar 14

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.

Conscientious Abortions?

  We Don’t Need New Laws Protecting Abortionists

  • Richard M. Doerflinger* |  If we legally protect a “right of conscience” to refuse to assist or perform abortions, shouldn’t we also protect “conscience-based” decisions to provide abortions? So asks Dr. Lisa Harris of the University of Michigan, in a recent commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine (further publicized at a Washington Post blog).
    Full Text

 

American obstetrician comments on death of woman in Ireland

Obstetrician Lisa Harris, whose column in the New England Journal of Medicine asserted that protection of conscience laws fail to recognize that abortion providers are motivated by conscientious convictions, repeated her arguments in an interview with the New Scientist magazine.  While she admitted that the circumstances of the death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland are not clear, she speculated that the Halappanavar might not have died had an abortion been provided.  She stated that similar problems arise in denominational hospitals in the United States.  She described the case of a woman who was referred to her with a “septic abortion ” because the foetus was still alive, and the religiously affilicated hospital where she was first treated would not induce an abortion.  [New Scientist]

Recognizing conscience in abortion provision

Lisa Harris

N Engl J Med 2012; 367:981-983

The exercise of conscience in health care is generally considered synonymous with refusal to participate in contested medical services, especially abortion. This depiction neglects the fact that the provision of abortion care is also conscience-based. The persistent failure to recognize abortion provision as “conscientious” has resulted in laws that do not protect caregivers who are compelled by conscience to provide abortion services, contributes to the ongoing stigmatization of abortion providers, and leaves theoretical and practical blind spots in bioethics with respect to positive claims of conscience — that is, conscience-based claims for offering care, rather than for refusing to provide it.[Full Text ]