The hallucinogenic drug peyote is not for me, though I respect the right of Native Americans to use it in their religious rituals. Blood transfusions are not verboten to me, but I respect Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to refuse them. Health insurance programs fit into my lifestyle, yet I respect the rights of the Amish to work out non-insurance medical care programs with the hospitals they use.
Abortion, however, is horrifying to me and I shudder to think that money I pay for health insurance should fund abortion in any way at all. I shudder even more to think that the U.S. government would force me to subsidize abortion and other services in order to get health insurance from a private company. This is Big Brother at his worst and I cringe at the thought that anyone, including a church organization, might be told by government to fund a procedure through private insurance plans for their own employees. Having government decide such questions is a clear violation of conscience.
Some contraceptives, such as the morning-after pills, can cause abortions. The church objects to them because they involve taking an innocent life, however tiny it is. Some ridicule the church’s stance on contraception but the spiritual truth is that contraception deliberately deprives human sexual intimacy of an essential part of its depth and meaning. A man and woman through their sexual union express total commitment and openness to each other, including openness to conceive and nurture a new human person.
The church’s position can be supported even from a secular point of view. It is hard to deny that broad promotion of contraceptives and sterilization has made sexuality more “casual” and less meaningful for millions, or that hormonal contraceptives have had serious and sometimes life-threatening effects on some women. Others don’t have to understand or agree with this perspective; but until now, the federal government has generally been careful to allow individuals and religious organizations to purchase and provide health care without being forced to violate it.
Respect for freedom of conscience and religious liberty has a long history. Thomas Jefferson, who was not especially religious himself, said it best in 1809, when he declared that “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.”
That position is under threat as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) prepares to list “preventive services for women” that must be included in most private health plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as the Healthcare Reform Act. HHS called on the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to list such services that should be mandated in private health plans (PPACA). IOM said July 20 that everybody’s health plan should cover contraception, sterilization and patient education and counseling promoting these for all women with reproductive capacity. IOM offers no talk of religious exemption for those with moral or religious objections to some of these practices, including those that effectively abort tiny children.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) defines itself on its Web site as an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public. As it claims independence, one can ask “independent of what? Constitutional history? American government? Basic human rights?”
Fortunately, two members of Congress, Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Dan Boren (D-OK), saw it coming, and introduced the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act 2011. They and the bill co-sponsors recognize that it is wrong for government to force institutions and persons to provide procedures and drugs that violate their conscience. That includes drugs that can take innocent lives under the guise of “treating” what IOM apparently sees as a disease, i.e. pregnancy. The Fortenberry and Boren bill would prevent new mandates under PPACA from being used to discriminate against persons and institutions for acting according to their conscience on these matters – as it already respects the consciences of the Amish, Christian Scientists and adherents of Native American beliefs.
Rights are important, and citizens need to be wary of threats against them. The freedom to follow one’s conscience and to practice one’s religion is under assault today and concerned people need to push back. St. Thomas More, who was heralded in the play “A Man for All Seasons,” faced a conscience problem when England’s Henry VIII demanded an oath of allegiance to him as a self-declared head of the church. Thomas More, the king’s lord chancellor and a brilliant lawyer, refused to sign. He squared off against his government, albeit reluctantly. Before his execution at the chopping block for such treachery the husband and father voiced his allegiance to his king, but with one caveat: “The King’s good servant,” More declared himself, “but God’s first.”
It was more than 400 years ago when More said the government had gone beyond what his conscience could bear. The right to follow one’s conscience trumps other obligations, even rights claimed by the government. The message still stands today.
Sr. Mary Ann Walsh is spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated.