Conscience clause laws allow medical professionals to refuse medical care to patients without suffering any employment penalty. The first conscience clauses were enacted in response to Roe v. Wade. Their number increased over the last thirty years as religious opposition to reproductive health care increased.
The Obama administration recently issued new regulations about medical professionals’ consciences that replace the rules hurriedly enacted at the end of the Bush administration. Obama’s rules are an improvement over Bush’s. The Bush rules were read to expand conscience clauses to include more procedures, more medical personnel, and more conscientious reasons not to treat patients. According to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Bush rules upset the balance between patients’ rights to obtain health care and the conscience rights of health care providers.
Obama's regulations are less expansive. Nonetheless, the Obama administration remains deeply committed to conscience clause legislation. Obama's rules authorize a Civil Rights office to hear complaints from medical workers who believe they faced employment discrimination because they followed their conscience. Bush pushed his rules through precisely because he believed that conscience was in danger in the workplace.
Both presidents were mistaken to favor medical conscience over patients’ rights and to support and encourage special rules to allow people to practice medicine only insofar as their religion allows. Women’s medical care is under assault on all fronts. The House of Representatives recently voted to ban Planned Parenthood funding. The South Dakota and Nebraska legislatures considered bills making it a justifiable homicide to kill an abortion provider. Dozens of states are considering new curbs on abortion. Members of the House tried to eliminate all funding for abortion, even supporting a bill to limit federal dollars available to rape victims to those who have been “forcibly raped.” Another House bill would allow doctors to refuse abortion services even if the pregnancy threatens the woman’s health.
At a Catholic hospital in Phoenix, a 27-year-old woman's life was threatened by a pregnancy. She had life-threatening symptoms at 7 1/2 weeks and was worse at 11 weeks, when the hospital's ethics committee voted to allow an abortion to save her life. The local bishop immediately excommunicated a nun on that ethics committee and then declared that the hospital was no longer Catholic. Catholic teaching does not permit an abortion to save the mother's life.
This is what conscience clauses and the Bush and Obama administrations promote: religious freedom to deny life-saving medical treatment to others. If medicine and religion are inconsistent, then professionals should choose between them rather than practice religion with a medical license.