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Christian Conscience on the Critical List

3/6/2007 - 5:55 AM PST

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Religious Liberty Facing Rough Road in Health Care

By Father John Flynn

ROME, MARCH 6, 2007 (Zenit) - The right of doctors, pharmacists and hospitals to not provide treatments that violate their moral principles is increasingly under threat. The issues involved in this area were examined by the Pontifical Academy for Life, in a congress entitled "The Christian Conscience in Support of the Right to Life," held Feb. 23-24.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the academy, described as an "emergency" the current situation regarding the formation of the conscience in subjects involving human life.

In his address, posted in Italian on the Vatican's Web page, Bishop Sgreccia explained that a democratic society should allow sufficient space for the expression of a person's liberty and responsibility in living out key social values. Defending human life is the first of these values that are at the core of any society, he argued.

Bishop Sgreccio added that until recently conscientious objection on life issues was limited to the matter of abortion. In more recent years, however, the field has greatly expanded, with the addition of issues such as euthanasia, abortive pills and the use of embryos in research.

In fact, a recent survey carried out in the United States illustrated the importance many physicians place on the role of conscience. A study carried out by researchers at the University of Chicago found that about 1 out of 7 doctors feel they have no ethical obligation to inform patients about medical treatments that the physicians oppose on moral grounds, the Baltimore Sun reported Feb. 8.

The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the survey. The treatments mentioned ranged from abortion to euthanasia, and prescribing contraceptives for adolescents.

Ethical integrity

Dr. David Stevens, head of the Christian Medical Association, commented on the survey in a press release issued Feb. 9. He noted that the study suggested many doctors may feel pressured to violate their ethical integrity by referring patients to other physicians who will perform the morally objectionable practices.

"We need laws that protect physicians' rights of conscience, and we need education to encourage doctors to stand firm on strong moral and ethical principles," said Stevens.

An example of the pressures doctors are facing was quickly provided by the New York Times. In an editorial Feb. 13, the paper admitted that doctors have a right to not carry out morally objectionable practices, but denied their right to not present such practices as a valid option for their patients to consider.

"Any doctors who cannot talk to patients about legally permitted care because it conflicts with their values should give up the practice of medicine," was the editorial's harsh conclusion.

Not only doctors, but Catholic organizations face increasing pressure. Last year the Court of Appeals in the state of New York ruled that social service agencies run by the Catholic Church must provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives to their employees, the Associated Press reported Oct. 19. The decision affected Catholic Charities and nine other groups.

Richard Barnes, speaking for the Catholic organizations involved, argued that the conflict was not over contraception, but about religious liberty. In comments quoted by the New York Times on Oct. 20, Barnes said he feared that the judgment would lead the state to make laws even more offensive to religion.

Pharmacists in trouble

Another facet of the conflicts over conscience regards pharmacists. In recent years they have frequently run into conflicts when it comes to providing contraceptives and abortion pills. In one judgment last year, a federal judge upheld the legitimacy of Wal-Mart's dismissal of a Catholic pharmacist who refused to fill prescriptions for contraceptives, reported the Minneapolis Star Tribune on June 2. Judge John Shabaz dismissed a lawsuit brought by Neil Noesen, fired from his post at a Wal-Mart store in Onalaska, Wisconsin.

On Aug. 23 the Washington Times newspaper reported that in nearly half of the nation's legislatures, bills had been introduced in the current session to allow pharmacists not to fill prescriptions for so-called emergency contraception, which are known abortifacients, or birth control medicines based on their religious or moral objections.

According to information on the Web site of the National Conference of State Legislatures, four U.S. states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota -- have passed laws allowing a pharmacist to refuse to dispense emergency contraception drugs. In addition, Colorado, Florida, Maine and Tennessee have broad refusal clauses that do not specifically mention pharmacists.

By contrast, Illinois has ...

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