Dishonesty in the Conscience Rule Debate

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Dishonesty in the Conscience Rule Debate

Kathleen Reeves

If faith-based providers want to convince us that they’re interested in the dignity of their patients, they need to stop the war on medicine.

The anti-choice movement made headway during the Bush administration through a calculated assault on medicine—now it sees its towers crumbling. Obama has said that he may rescind Bush’s last-minute "conscience" rule, which would permit health care providers to deny legal medical care to their patients, and he has given the country 30 days to weigh in.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has given us their two cents in an unfortunate argument that demonstrates a profound distortion of what the conscience rule would really do.

USCCB’s comments, as reported by the Catholic News Service, are centered on the right to refuse to participate in abortion. There are already laws on the books protecting this right. For thirty years, no health care provider has had to perform an abortion if he or she didn’t want to.

What Bush added was a rule allowing any health care provider—including pharmacists, receptionists, and anyone else working in a health care center—to refuse any services they found objectionable. Since abortion is out of the debate, the target of this rule was, presumably, that other Enemy No. 1 of the religious right: contraception.

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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Yet USCCB returns again and again to abortion. Maybe they’re aware of how ridiculous they’d look if they were defending the rights of hospitals to withhold EC from rape victims, or of pharmacists to “morally object” to a mother of three’s birth control prescription.

The USCCB knows exactly what the conscience rule does and doesn’t apply to. When they mention abortion, they’re referring to contraception: maybe Plan B, maybe birth control pills—who knows, maybe they’re being especially creative and referring to condoms, which, we’ve all learned, cause AIDS. Different religious groups have different ideas about how contraception works, most of which fly in the face of medical evidence. But the Catholic News Service’s report on the USCCB never once mentions contraception, which makes it clear that they want people to think the conscience provider rule is about abortion. They’re too cowardly to approach this issue from the front.

In the end, of course, abortion is not really out of the debate. When a woman is refused Plan B by a pharmacist, one hopes she’s able to get her prescription transferred to another pharmacy. But what if she doesn’t have the time or resources to do so? If there’s one pharmacy in her town? If she doesn’t have a car? And say a woman has a fear of doctors, or she’s 17 and her parents don’t know she’s at the doctor—imagine she’s feeling fragile to begin with. When that woman visits a doctor like Michele Phillips, who tells her she has no right to seek birth control pills, will that woman ever go to a doctor again?

What do you think the chances are of these women becoming pregnant? What does the conscience provider rule do for the effort to prevent abortions?

The USCCB points out that often the only healthcare provider in a rural area is faith-based, and that:

religiously affiliated providers … see those patients as having inherent human dignity and human rights.

Agreed. And if those faith-based providers want to convince us that they’re interested in the dignity of their patients, they need to stop the war on medicine. They need to start listening to their patients rather than making moral judgments poorly disguised as “medical decisions” that belittle these patients. This last-ditch effort by the USCCB to defend their position—the implication that the conscience rule allows healthcare providers to honor their patients’ “human rights”—is as disingenuous as Concerned Women for America’s Wendy Wright pretending that her concerns with Plan B are health-related.

With the Plan B ruling yesterday, a federal judge said that the moral convictions of a few should not derail medicine. The conscience provider rule is a similar crime against quality healthcare. And that offends my morals.