Will Pro-Choicers Respect Conscientious Choice?

Cardinal Addresses Possible Regulations on Abortion Funding

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 23, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The chairman of the U.S. bishops pro-life committee says an issue is being discussed by members of Congress that should be a matter of agreement between "pro-lifers" and "pro-choicers": respect of conscience.



Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, affirmed this in a letter Friday to members of Congress. The cardinal's letter responded to a debate that arose when the New York Times reported on July 15 that it had a draft of proposed federal regulations on the conscience rights of health care providers.

According to the Times article, "The Bush administration wants to require all recipients of aid under federal health programs to certify that they will not refuse to hire nurses and other providers who object to abortion and even certain types of birth control."

A California Representative responded to the news by circulating a letter calling on members of Congress to write President George Bush to oppose any such regulations, even though as yet, they are still unpublished.

Yet Cardinal Rigali said the issue "should be a matter of agreement among members [of Congress] who call themselves 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice': the freedom of health care providers to serve the public without violating their most deeply held moral and religious convictions on the sanctity of human life."

He clarified that his own statement was not a public comment on "the details of an unpublished draft allegedly leaked from a government agency." But, the cardinal added, the critics' charges of the possible regulations "are sweeping enough that a few general comments on conscience protection in health care seem warranted."

Nothing new

Cardinal Rigali first explained that there are already laws protecting rights of conscience in health care, the first having been passed in 1973.

"Some of these laws address such rights in a specific context, such as abortion or AIDS prevention; some explicitly address both abortion and sterilization; and some try to ensure respect for individuals’ moral and religious convictions in programs receiving federal funds regardless of the specific issue," the cardinal noted. "The critics’ surprise that conscience protection may apply beyond the specific issue of abortion seems based on a lack of knowledge of existing federal law."

Nevertheless, the cardinal added, "despite Congress’ frequently demonstrated concern about conscience rights over 35 years, none of these statutes has been clarified or enforced through implementing regulations."

As a result, he said, some institutions might be violating the laws unawares, and some victims of discrimination may not know they have legal recourse for their situations.

"It seems the statutory policy is clear and needed, and at the same time is relatively unknown, misunderstood and unenforced," Cardinal Rigali wrote. "This is a paradigm instance calling for the executive branch to reaffirm and implement the statutes, especially as fundamental rights are at stake. If the administration is preparing regulations along these lines, it would simply be performing its proper task in an area of law where that is long overdue."

Tiny or pervasive?

The cardinal's final point called into question the logical soundness of abortion-supporters' arguments.

He explained that "efforts to protect rights of conscience are being attacked by critics as a threat to women’s 'access' to abortion arid birth control. This is an interesting charge. For many years, pro-abortion groups have insisted that abortion and related services are 'basic' and mandatory aspects of health care."

"They have opposed conscience clauses, dismissively calling them 'refusal clauses,' claiming that they protect an irrational 'refusal' by a tiny minority of religious zealots to comply with this supposedly objective medical standard," the cardinal continued. "Now they have reversed their stand, claiming that conscientious objection to these procedures is so pervasive in the health care professions that policies protecting conscience rights will eliminate access to them."

"Obviously these two claims cancel each other out," Cardinal Rigali affirmed.

He added: "I would suggest, however, that if a procedure really elicits widespread ethical disapproval from conscientious health professionals, and must be imposed on unwilling physicians and nurses by force of law in order to be available at all, it may not be as 'basic' as pro-abortion groups imagine. I would add that patients with pro-life convictions, including women who require a physician’s care for themselves and their unborn children during pregnancy, deserve 'access' to health care professionals who do not have contempt for their religious and moral convictions or for the lives of their children.

"This issue provides self-described 'pro-choice' advocates with an opportunity to demonstrate their true convictions. […] [I]s the 'pro-choice' label a misleading mask for an agenda of actively promoting and even imposing morally controversial procedures on those who conscientiously hold different views? Reactions to efforts to reaffirm and implement laws on conscience protection may provide an answer."