Deacon Rohrbacher

Abortion, Conscience Protection and Conscientious Objection

The Southeast Alaska Catholic
January 2012

Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher, Director, Office of Ministries

I believe that the recent case of twelve New Jersey nurses who were ordered by hospital management of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to train to assist at abortions and were threatened with dismissal if they refused, highlights the need to think seriously about conscience protection, conscientious objection and abortion.

In the New Jersey case, the nurses were ordered in September 2011 to begin training so that they could assist in abortions at the same-day surgical unit where they worked (they had previously been exempt from any participation). The nurses refused and took the case to federal court, arguing current federal and state laws bar hospitals that receive public funding from requiring their employees from performing or assisting at abortions. The court imposed a temporary restraining order on the hospital while considering the case. On December 22nd, the hospital agreed to recognize the right of the nurses to refuse to participate in abortions and promised not to penalize them.

In a news interview, one of the plantiffs, Fe Esperanza Racpan Vinoya was asked: “If a procedure is legal, and abortion is legal, regardless of what your own personal beliefs are, why is it unreasonable for your employer to expect you to do your job?”
Health professionals who are Catholics (as well as other people of faith and good will) who are conscientiously opposed to abortion will increasingly be faced with the question posed to Nurse Vinoya. If abortion is legal, why is it unreasonable for your employer to expect health professionals to perform or assist in abortions, even if this clashes with their personal beliefs?

Implicit in the reporter’s question is this assertion.
Abortion is one of the services provided by health care institutions. You are a health care professional employed by a health care institution. Therefore, it is your responsibility to perform or assist in abortions regardless of your personal beliefs in the matter.
It seems like a plausible, even reasonable argument, if we accept the premise that performing abortions or assisting at them is a contractual obligation for doctors, nurses and health care workers.

Here is where I think that the history of conscription and conscientious objection is helpful. The argument for compulsory military service in those countries that have the draft has been that military service is a responsibility and obligation of citizenship.

Although all citizens are not able to serve (because of age, fitness or aptitude), those who are able to serve are obliged to do so as a condition of citizenship and the benefits they derive from the nation. This is the basis for the argument made in favor of some form of national civilian service and in principle is unobjectionable. Every person does have an obligation to work on behalf of the common good.

However, compulsory military service is another matter entirely, because the essential function of the military is to employ lethal violence to fight wars. For those individuals, who because of sincerely held religious, moral or ethical beliefs are opposed to war and taking human life, they cannot serve in the armed forces without doing violence to their consciences.

During World War I, the government attempted to force Quakers, Mennonites and other conscientious objectors to serve in the armed forces. They were sentenced to long terms in military and federal prison, were put to hard labor and punished with solitary confinement if they protested their treatment. While affirming their loyalty and good citizenship, they refused to give in, fearing the moral and spiritual consequences of violating their consciences more than the harsh treatment they were undergoing. They argued that forcing a person to act against their most deeply held beliefs worked to the detriment not only of the individual but of society as a whole, which could not function without a citizenry capable of discerning right and wrong.

As a result of this experience, the Congress eventually chose to recognize the rights of conscience and created an exemption in law for conscientious objectors who object to participation in all war because of sincerely held religious, moral or ethical beliefs. In a matter as grave and consequential as the taking of human life, Congress and the courts recognized that the rights of conscience supersede even the legitimate interests of government and society in self-defense.

For doctors, nurses and other health workers, the question has become this: do employers have the right, since Roe v. Wade, either through legislation or public and private regulation, to compel medical providers to perform or assist in abortions? Conscience protection legislation in many states continues to protect health professionals from having to choose between violating their conscience and losing their jobs. However, the pernicious argument that abortion is now the new standard of care and that health professionals who will not participate in abortions should get out of medicine, seems to be gaining ground.
In medicine (as in any other kind of work) employers are well within their rights to require that those who work for them must do those tasks that are difficult or disagreeable. There are many such tasks that simply need to be done and someone has to do them.

However, abortion is radically different. It’s the deliberate ending of an innocent human life. Although abortion is tragically the law of the land, the deliberate killing of the innocent goes against both natural and revealed law. Attempting to force doctors, nurses and health workers to violate the moral law by threatening to force them out of the medical profession or out of their jobs is itself an offense against conscience and justice.

Let us continue to work to promote life and the protection of unborn children in our society. Let us support too, doctors, nurses and medical workers who refuse, as a matter of conscience, to perform or assist in abortions.

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