Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Objectors shouldn't work in emergency rooms

Massachusetts Attorney General rejects accommodation of religious freedom

Sean Murphy*

Martha Coakley is Attorney General of Massachusetts and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.1  She identifies herself as a Catholic.  On 14 January, 2010, she was interviewed by WBSM Radio host Ken Pittman.  At one point during the interview he asked her about her position on protection of conscience laws. 

Pittman: Health care, um, eh, would you pass a, a, a health care bill that had, uh, conscientious objector toward certain procedures, including abortion?

Coakley: Um, it would, I don't believe that would be included in the health care bill.  I don't understand exactly what the question is.

Pittman: If, if the . . .

Coakley:  I would not, I would not pass a bill as Scott Brown filed amendment to say that if people believe that they don't want to provide services that are required under the law and under Roe vs. Wade that they can individually decide to not follow the law. The answer to that, the answer to that question is "No."

Pittman: Okay.  So a service, a service . . .

Coakley:  [Undecipherable] and let's be, and let's be clear.  Cause Scott Brown filed an amendment to a bill in Massachusetts that would say that hospital and emergency room personnel could deny emergency contra, contraception to a woman who came in who'd been raped.

Pittman: Right.  And if you're a Catholic and, and you believe what the Pope teaches, um, you know, that any form of birth control is a sin, uh, you don't want to do that, uh, that. . .

Coakley:  I know.  But we have a separation of Church and State here, Ken, let's be clear.

Pittman: Yeah, in the, in the emergency room, you still have your religious freedom.

Coakley:  Uh, wha, uh, k, the, the law says that people are allowed to have that.  And so, then, if you you can have religious freedom.  You probably shouldn't work in an emergency room.

Pittman: Wow. Okay.

Coakley referred to "services that are required under the law and under Roe vs. Wade,"  the latter a reference to the American Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.  Contrary to Coakley's assertion, Roe vs. Wade does not require the provision of abortion services.  Holly Fernandez Lynch, writing in Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care, remarks, "Legality on its own simply does not mandate universal availability."2  Moreover, as others have pointed out, Massachusetts state law requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs to the point of undue hardship,3 and it provides protection for freedom of conscience with respect to abortion and contraception [See text of laws].

Given her position as Attorney General of Massachusetts, Coakley's statements are surprising and troubling.  It would seem that she is prepared to force people out of health care if they are unwilling to provide any services or procedures that are declared to be legal, which, in some jurisdictions, include assisted suicide or euthanasia.

One issue raised by the interviewer requires clarification.  He appears to believe that the Catholic prohibition of contraception extends to the provision of the morning after pill to rape victims.  In fact, the Catholic Church permits the use of the morning after pill in cases of rape if it is taken prior to conception, although within the Catholic community there is a dispute about what kind of medical test is morally sufficient to establish whether or not conception has occurred.4


1.  Martha Coakley, US Senate: Stand with Martha (14 Jan 2010).

2.  Fernandez-Lynch, Holly, Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008, p. 40, citing Vischer, Rob, "Conscience in Context: Pharmacist Rights and the Eroding Moral Marketplace," Stan. L. & Policy Rev. 17 (2006) p. 96.

3.  Smith, Ben, "Coakley's Conscience Clause." Ben Smith: A Running Conversation about Politics.  15 January, 2010. Accessed 2010-01-15.

4.  For a discussion of the issues, see Sulmasy, Daniel, "Emergency Contraception for Women Who Have Been Raped: Must Catholics Test for Ovulation, or Is Testing for Pregnancy Morally Sufficient?"  Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4, 305-331.