Fans of Grey’s Anatomy may not realize it, but the original Seattle Grace was Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence. In 1858, she and her sisters established the first permanent hospital in the Northwest, the four-bed St. Joseph Hospital, after traveling some 6,000 miles before the age of frequent-flier miles.
(When I say “established,” by the way, I mean it quite literally. A historian described Mother Joseph — the daughter of a Quebec carriage maker — “striding across the ground near Fort Vancouver, Washington, hammer dangling from her belt like the sheriffs of the Old West carried their six-guns, and wielding a saw in her hand.” Similar stories from that period in our nation’s history abound, most of them recounted by the CEOs of America’s first hospitals, schools, and orphanages — all of them Catholic religious sisters.)
If Democrat Martha Coakley is elected to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday as the elected successor to Edward M. Kennedy, she might eventually encounter the statue of Mother Joseph that stands in National Statuary Hall. But Mother Joseph doesn’t belong in the U.S. Capitol, if you follow Martha Coakley’s thinking. Not if Mother Joseph wanted to run her hospital in accord with what her faith taught (and still teaches), what her life gave witness to, and what her habit represented.
In an radio interview on Thursday, Coakley explained that although “you can have religious freedom,” she said, “you probably shouldn’t work in an emergency room” if you are someone who would not want to participate in such things as providing emergency contraception (EC) to rape victims.
Coakley’s comments were elicited by radio host Ken Pittman, who asked her to comment on a conscience issue in health care. The question came in response to attacks she’d made on her opponent, Republican Scott Brown, accusing him of wanting to refuse rape victims emergency contraception. She made that claim because he sponsored an amendment to a 2005 bill mandating the distribution of EC in all hospital rooms — an amendment that would have exempted medical personnel and institutions with religious objections. (The amendment failed.)
A Catholic hospital, or a Catholic medical professional, presumably wouldn’t want to be a part of distributing EC: Besides the contraception issue, some argue that it can work as an abortifacient. One sensible interpretation of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as Leonard J. Nelson III highlights in Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Health Care, would surprise no one familiar with Catholic teaching: “The provision of abortion and other reproductive-altering services prohibited by the religious directives would violate its moral commitments and thus would not be offered by Catholic hospitals.” This is a legitimate conscience concern for faithful Catholics involved in hospital settings. And it’s also only the beginning of conscience concerns that the government has been treading on lately.
But Coakley explained to Pittman Thursday night that such commitments really shouldn’t be a problem in the United States, because “we have a separation of church and state.” By which she did not mean that we should let the religious hospital be loyal to its mission, or the faithful Catholic not be a party to that which violates his conscience. She argued that those with such conscience issues ought to stay away from the ER.
One might be inclined to dismiss this as a campaign flub. But she is the Massachusetts attorney general — someone who has a responsibility to know a thing or two about law.
Coakley betrays a prevalent tendency of the liberal mind: If we go by what she said to Pittman, Coakley believes that religious liberty is not something endowed by our Creator, but something the law allows, something the state can change depending on who is in power, or what’s polling well. If she were his student, Richard W. Garnett of Notre Dame’s law school has a few questions he would want to ask Coakley: Is religious freedom a concession by the State? Or is religious freedom really about the fact that government is limited in its scope and competence, and that some realms of life stand outside the circumscribed authority that a free people is willing to grant its government?
Coakley’s radio interview is also striking because it comes at a time when one of the first votes the new Massachusetts senator will cast may well involve the conscience-violation of millions of Americans — in a health-care bill that, in its current Senate iteration, compels taxpayer funding of abortion.
Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, who has been a close observer of and active participant in the religious–freedom fight across the country, including in Massachusetts, says: “The genteel liberal consensus around abortion – as long as women can get them, let’s not torture religious people or institutions that disagree – is clearly breaking down. Part of the reason is that as religious people filter increasingly into the one party that protects their values, the other party is becoming increasingly open to using the law to stick it to such folks if possible.”
In some respects, Martha Coakley actually deserves points for honesty. “Religious freedom” appears to have a limited value for her, as it had a limited value for those in the Massachusetts statehouse who voted for — and voted down the exemption amendment — the bill that would mandate that all Bay State hospitals provide emergency contraception to rape victims. As it does for senators and congressmen who insist that taxpayers should be funding abortion as part of their “comprehensive” health-care legislation in memoriam to Ted Kennedy. But at least she admits it.
Martha Coakley is effectively saying that faithful Catholics can’t work in emergency rooms, whether in public or Catholic hospitals. She is saying that faithful Catholics cannot be pharmacists. And it is, of course, not just Catholics this thinking affects. She is saying that “do no harm” is out the window in the age of Roe v. Wade. She is saying what the U.S. Senate just said: that an American should not have the freedom to choose whether or not his tax dollars will fund abortions. They will be so used, consciences be damned.
Whether or not Bay Staters realize it, the issues they’re grappling with now are national issues of conscience, ones in which the very concept of freedom is up for debate and, even, sale.
The religious freedom guaranteed in the American Founding made possible Mother Joseph’s enduring contributions to American civic life. Martha Coakley’s “No Catholics Need Apply” mindset represents a genuine threat to American freedom — and not just the religious kind.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.