Politics & Policy

Catholic Hospitals Should Not Have to Sterilize Patients

(Emilia Unger/Dreamstime)
The Left objects that some health-care providers follow their own conscience, not its.

Last year Rachel Miller, a California mother expecting her second child, attempted to arrange for a tubal ligation after delivering her baby. Mercy Hospital, the local Catholic institution where she intended to have the procedure, informed her that it could not accommodate her request. Miller, with the help of the ACLU, filed suit.

Miller’s tale of woe has become an iconic liberal example of faith-based oppression, as outlined most recently in the ThinkProgress piece “A Bishop in the Exam Room: When Faith Dictates Health Care Instead of Science.” Authors Erica Hellerstein and Josh Israel lament the expansion of Catholic hospitals in the U.S., forecasting horrors if religiously oriented institutions are permitted to exercise conscience rights in their medical care.

The list of predictions is familiar. Women, like Miller after Mercy Hospital denied her request, will be forced to trek inconvenient distances to receive reproductive care. Doctors will refuse to offer certain prescriptions for fear of retribution from the Catholic bishops. Women’s lives may even be endangered. Everyone must be able to receive — and doctors must be able to provide — “necessary reproductive services.”

Few would disagree that everyone must be able to receive necessary medical services. However, Hellerstein and Israel’s article is an example of the typical left-wing rhetorical shell game. By “necessary reproductive services,” they of course mean abortion, sterilization, and a range of related procedures that many religious people — Catholics just one group among them — do not believe are medical at all. Rather, these are moral issues.

RELATED: Congress Must Protect Religious Liberty Now More than Ever

ThinkProgress, like much of the Left, refuses to acknowledge the potential legitimacy of the claims of religious believers. But those who wish to coerce health-care workers into practices they find objectionable ignore the U.S.’s longstanding legal and philosophical tradition of recognizing and protecting conscience rights.

For instance, James Madison wrote in his pamphlet Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785): “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

Or, more recently, consider the following statement of Dave Weldon, the Florida congressman who in 2004 sponsored the Weldon Amendment, put in place to protect health-care entities opposed to abortion: “The right of conscience is fundamental to our American freedoms. We should guarantee this freedom by protecting all health care providers from being forced to perform, refer for, or pay for elective abortions.”

Commenting on this statement, Weldon “held, and Congress agreed, that abortion is simply not the kind of thing government should force anyone to be involved in,” conscience-protection scholar Richard Doerflinger noted at Public Discourse. Protecting conscience rights must be a primary goal of any policy that attempts to fairly address the unavoidable conflict between “reproductive rights” and competing claims to religious freedom.

Some Catholic hospitals are likely to close rather than succumb to federal pressure.

To that end, pro-abortion-rights activists and politicians might consider encouraging a freer health-care system, one that operates more as a market than as a monopoly. Catholic hospitals have expanded over the past decade but currently are only 14.5 percent of all U.S. hospitals. The range of “reproductive services” is hardly boxed out of the health-care market, and if activists are worried about a lack of access in certain regions, they have the freedom to make up the difference. It should not be the default mode of government to impose on providers who object.

It is worth noting that if government continues to attempt to coerce providers into performing objectionable procedures, the health-care industry will almost certainly decline in quality. Some Catholic hospitals are likely to close rather than succumb to federal pressure; that has already been the case with Catholic adoption agencies, some of which have closed rather than submit to laws requiring that they place children with same-sex couples. Surely the closure of local hospitals poses far more danger to women’s health than having to drive upstate for sterilization.

The prospects of a flourishing civil society are damaged when people with certain conscientious objections, in the health-care industry or elsewhere, are forced out of the public square.

#related#Obviously, many view abortion, contraception, and euthanasia as necessary services rather than as moral wrongs. But it establishes a dangerous precedent to pressure those with conscientious objections to perform what they believe are grossly immoral acts. In fact, the day may come when those on the left appreciate the protections that our Constitution, and our civil society, afford to conscience. They would do well to recognize the value of these protections while they can.

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