Healthcare Right of Conscience


What do you think about conscientious objectors? For some of us, this conjures up the image of Vietnam War protestors. We may or may not have agreed with what they said, but we supported their right to say it. After all, our country’s history is that of settlers who wanted to live according to their conscience and religious principles. But some government actions are making our freedom less “free.”

This past February the Obama administration rolled back a federal regulation designed to protect healthcare workers who have moral, ethical or religious reasons for refusing to participate in some medical procedures or services.[1] This rollback is one more step in a long debate over right of conscience and healthcare: Do we have a right to demand every medical procedure or service, regardless of moral questions?

Shortly after abortion was legalized, Congress made it clear that doctors and others could not be required to perform or assist with abortions. The legal right of individuals to refuse to participate in medical services they find objectionable is referred to as their “right of conscience.”

The debate over right of conscience protection has expanded from surgical abortion to other reproductive services, such as sterilization, contraception, and “Plan B,” the “morning after” pill which can cause an abortion. What’s next? Other medical practices such as removing feeding tubes and physician-assisted suicide. You might say, “Well, that’s not going to affect me. We trust our doctor to help us make the right ethical decisions for our healthcare.”

Not so fast. If their conscience is not protected, they may leave healthcare. Ninety-two percent of religiously observant physicians said they would quit medicine if they are forced to participate in immoral practices.[2] But it’s not just doctors who are at risk. Let me give you a real life example. A friend of ours owns several small pharmacies. When the governor issued an emergency order that would require his pharmacies to dispense a pill that could cause an abortion, he refused. He chose to fight and win the legal battle, or else close his pharmacies. The good news is that after six years, he won the most recent court ruling. But what happens when government action forces private citizens to close their businesses? Without strong legal protection of healthcare workers’ right of conscience, nurses, doctors, and pharmacists are at risk of losing their jobs, their medical licenses or professional standing.

Each one of us should have the freedom to exercise our conscience. That’s why understanding the importance of legal protection for right of conscience is “everyday bioethics.” No one should have to risk their livelihood or be coerced into participating in activities they morally oppose, especially those which involve the destruction of human life. That’s a high price to pay for a right that used to be free.

[1] Rob Stein, “Obama Administration Replaces Controversial ‘Conscience’ Regulation for Health-Care Workers,” Washington Post, February 19, 2011, (accessed March 4, 2011).

[2] Jonathan Imbody, “Bogus Attempt to Defend Obama Administration’s Decision to Gut Healthcare Conscience Regulation.” Today’s News & Views. March 9, 2011.


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