Should healthcare providers be required to engage in medical procedures, such as abortions, that violate their individual moral or religious convictions?
In the past year, we see a divergence in how Europe and the United States address this important question.
In October of last year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution protecting the right of health care providers to practice medicine according to their individual moral consciences.
The resolution reads "no person, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion, the performance of a human miscarriage, or euthanasia or any act which could cause the death of a human fetus or embryo, for any reason."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been working to dismantle such rights of conscience protections in the United States.
There are several statutes in place — the Church Amendments (named for the late Sen. Frank Church), Public Health Service Act section 245 and the Weldon Amendment — that relate to whether a healthcare worker can be required to participate in medical procedures that violate the worker's religious or moral beliefs.
These conscience statutes, however, are not self-enforcing. Consequently, the Bush Administration enacted a regulation, known as the conscience clause rule, that enforces the conscience statutes.
The Obama Administration, however, has indicated that it intends to rescind the conscience clause rule. There is indication through some recent litigation over this issue that a final rule rescinding the conscience clause rule could issue from HHS any day.
It is instructive that Europe, a continent whose modern identity was ripped apart mid-twentieth century when rights of conscience were trampled by fascism and communism, has spoken with such clarity about the rights of conscience in morally-suspect medical procedures.
It is extremely disturbing that our own federal government would seek to weaken protections for conscience, especially at the very moment that it is increasing its involvement within the management of healthcare.
The conscience clause rule is still in force. We urge Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to abandon any notion of rescinding this important protection that protects the conscience rights of health care workers — a protection that is more important than ever within a nationalizing healthcare system that systemically seeks to reduce costs.