Column: Conscience rights: from choice to coercion

by Susan Wills

A hallmark of free nations is the recognition of the individual’s freedom of conscience. Tyrant states do not protect conscience; they strangle it.

The right of conscience is as old as Western civilization. Over 2,400 years ago, Sophocles’ fictional Antigone was esteemed for following her conscience in burying her brother in defiance of the king’s edict.

The first recorded claim of conscience rights for medical personnel is the 4th century B.C. Hippocratic Oath: “I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients. . . . I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion.”

The right of conscience is recognized in the U.S. Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the World Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics, and, in 47 states, laws protect the conscience rights of healthcare providers.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls conscience “man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (no. 1776).

Given the universality and history of the right of conscience among free peoples, it is shocking that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others have sued to overturn regulations implementing long-standing federal laws enacted to protect the conscience rights of healthcare professionals and institutions.

In attacking the recent regulations, the ACLU is taking aim at three federal laws. Congress enacted the “Church Amendment” immediately after the Roe v. Wade decision to ensure that healthcare professionals and hospitals would not be coerced into involvement in abortions or sterilizations. The Coats Amendment was enacted over a decade ago to nullify the attempt by the medical accreditation council to coerce medical schools into training Ob-Gyn residents in abortion procedures. Since 2004, the Weldon Amendment has prevented governmental discrimination against healthcare entities on account of the entity’s refusal to “provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

Despite all their talk of “choice,” the abortion industry and its supporters are determined to eliminate the choice of medical professionals and entities to not become accomplices in killing unborn boys and girls. Despite all their talk about “privacy,” the abortion industry and its supporters are determined to trample on healthcare professionals’ innermost zone of privacy, that “secret core and sanctuary” known as conscience. It is no longer enough, in their eyes, that women and girls can obtain potentially abortifacient drugs in virtually every pharmacy in the United States or that women and girls can have abortions on request in every city where there’s a profit to be had. They will not rest until every pharmacy, hospital, healthcare provider, and taxpayer collaborates in the culture of death.

In the coming weeks, we may see an unprecedented assault on conscience rights: Taxpayers could be forced to fund organizations that promote and perform abortion overseas, including UNFPA, the enabler of China’s abusive population control policy; taxpayers may be required to fund contraceptives and abortifacient drugs at ever-higher levels; tax-payers may be required to fund abortions for the low-income and uninsured; and healthcare professionals and institutions may be forced to violate their consciences or quit providing services.

We must pray and act to stop the assault on conscience.

Susan Wills is assistant director for education and outreach at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. To learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities, go to the Web site at: .

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The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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