Religious liberty provides for the free exercise of one’s faith in every aspect of life. This freedom is far more extensive than merely having the freedom to attend the worship service of choice. Truly living one’s faith means that family life, professional life, leisure activities, as well as spiritual practices are guided by the tenets of faith.
Unfortunately, cultural norms throughout the world are growing less tolerant and less accommodating of religious liberty. Christians throughout the Middle East and in many parts of Africa are persecuted and slaughtered by radical Islamic extremists. In the Western world, a non-violent but equally intolerant secular culture seeks to eradicate all public displays of religious faith. In Great Britain a marriage counselor was fired because his religious convictions made it impossible for him to counsel same-sex couples. A British registrar was fired because her religious principles prohibited her from conducting same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.[i] There have also been cases of florists, bakers, and photographers who have been sanctioned and driven out of business because they refused to participate in homosexual wedding ceremonies.
Every profession is vulnerable to this religious discrimination, but perhaps none more so than the medical profession. Health care workers are intimately involved with matters of life and death on a daily basis. Catholic teaching, in accord with natural law, professes that all human life has intrinsic dignity from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death and faithful Catholics seek to uphold this dignity in every aspect of their lives, including their professional activities. Catholic health care workers are increasingly challenged by a secular health care system that offers little or no protection for the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly, and has little regard for religious principles.
Just this past December, the United Kingdom’s highest court ruled that two Catholic nurse midwives should not be given accommodations to avoid supervising staff who are actively participating in abortions. This ruling was applauded by the head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who said, “Extending this protection to tasks not directly related to the abortion would be to the detriment of women needing to end a pregnancy and the health care staff committed to providing that care. There are enough barriers in the way of women who need an abortion without further obstacles being thrown in their way.”[ii] In the eyes of the secular medical establishment, clearing the way for women to have an abortion trumps respect for the religious liberty of health care workers.
In Canada, leaders of the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons are arguing for a change to the association’s professional standards that would force physicians to participate in morally objectionable treatments and procedures like abortion or prescribing contraception. Current standards recognize the importance of conscience protections while the proposed changes state that at a minimum the physician must refer a patient to another physician willing to perform the objectionable intervention; and if no such physician is readily available the physician is required to offer the service himself. Failure to do so could lead to disciplinary action, including the loss of one’s medical license. Dr. Marc Gabel, past president of the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, says that physicians who cannot abide by the proposed requirement should get out of specialties like family medicine that would bring them into conflict with their religious principles.[iii]
The HHS mandate of the United States Affordable Care Act threatens to remove any shred of Catholic identity from health care. It is forcing religious entities like the Little Sisters of the Poor who care for the impoverished elderly to support morally objectionable services like contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization. As Mother Provincial Loraine explains, “But now the government demands we choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith. We cannot do that and we should not have to…But the government forces us to either violate our faith or take millions of dollars that we raised by begging for the elderly poor and instead pay fines to the IRS.” [iv]
In his message for the 2015 World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis warns, “How great a lie, on the other hand, lurks behind certain phrases which so insist on the importance of quality of life that they make people think that lives affected by grave illness are not worth living!”[v] The concerted effort to silence Catholic health care workers leaves a critical void to counter these lies.
Without people of faith in health care, who will respond to the growing reproductive industry that treats children like commodities and designs, manufactures, and sells children for a price? Who will object to the creation of human beings for the sole purpose of destroying them to harvest their stem cells? Who will oppose people like Drs. Franklin Miller and Robert Truog, who argue for a new medical ethics at the end of life to allow for harvesting vital organs for transplant before a patient is dead?[vi] Who will reject the utilitarian ethos of Ezekiel Emanuel, who advocates for age based rationing of health care, believing that those over the age of 75 have outlived their usefulness and are unworthy of anything but palliative medical care?[vii] In short, who will defend the most vulnerable and marginalized among us from the tyranny of the strong and powerful?
The erosion of religious liberty in health care is more than a threat to the livelihoods of Catholic health care professions. It puts the very foundations of health care at risk. It is people of faith who most vigorously defend the dignity and rights of individuals against a faceless bureaucracy that regards patients as statistics or mere entries on a balance sheet. It is people of faith who still champion the Hippocratic Oath and a doctor’s duty to First, do no harm. It is people of faith who guard the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.
Therefore, at the beginning of this new year let us resolve to diligently work to turn back the tide of religious persecution in health care. There must be conscience protection for all health care professionals. We must free the voices of the faithful to defend all of us from those who pervert the meanings of compassion and mercy in order to justify abortion, the destruction of embryos, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and the rationing of medical care. We cannot allow these voices to be silenced.