Last week, what the Washington Post characterized as a “terse posting on a federal Web site” set the stage for a debate on just how seriously our society takes freedom of conscience.
The posting announced that the Obama administration was planning to rescind “job protections for health workers who refuse to provide care they find objectionable.” These explicit protections were issued in the last few months of the Bush administration.
Under the current provisions, health care providers can lose federal funds if they don’t accommodate health-care workers “who refuse to participate in care they feel violates their . . . moral or religious beliefs.” The regulations covered “state and local governments, hospitals, health plans, clinics and other entities.”
Health-care providers and “abortion rights” advocates were quick to attack the Bush administration for promulgating the regulations. Groups like the American Medical Association said they opposed the regulations because, as they put it, “health-care providers have an obligation” to advise patients “of the options despite their own beliefs.”
At the same time, they said that the regulations were unnecessary because “there are already laws [that protect] health-care professionals” who refuse to provide care for personal reasons.
Well, not so fast. The rules were established in response to what the Catholic Health Association called “a variety of efforts to force Catholic and other health care providers to perform or refer for abortions and sterilizations.”
In a country that treasures freedom, what could possibly justify compelling people to violate their consciences? There is a long tradition established in the law and court cases not to do this, as in the case of conscientious objectors not being compelled to serve in the military.
Reportedly, some officials believe that protecting health-care workers’ consciences creates a “major obstacle to providing many health services” and even interferes with “scientific research.”
It is difficult to imagine what “scientific research” they have in mind—a pro-life researcher is not likely to choose a specialty where the destruction of unborn human life is a pre-requisite.
And by “many health services,” what’s really meant is “pharmacists.” One of the groups leading the charge for rescinding the rule is the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Its members have joined with Planned Parenthood to force pharmacists to dispense prescriptions that violate their religious beliefs, even when the prescription can be filled elsewhere.
In other words, the government is considering undermining religious freedom and freedom of conscience for the sake of convenience. They can’t even argue it’s necessary. If someone objects, for conscience’ sake, to facilitate abortion, anybody is free to go to another doctor or druggist.
Remember—freedom of conscience is the first freedom. And people who can be compelled to act in violation of their most deeply held convictions are not free in any meaningful sense.
The good news is that this appears to be a “trial balloon” of sorts. Administration officials are expecting lots of comments on the proposed change. And we shouldn’t disappoint them. Let them know that we value freedom of conscience too highly to let it be sacrificed, especially to those driven by ideology and profit.
Because what government officials are regarding as an “obstacle” is, in fact, the very foundation of our freedom—and the first defense against tyranny.