Protecting the Conscience of Health Professionals
Professor Robert P. George responds to Efforts to compel Pro-Life Medical professionals to participate in abortion.
The first thing one notices about the ACOG Committee report is that it is an exercise in moral philosophy. It proposes a definition of conscience, something that cannot be supplied by science or medicine. It then proposes to instruct its readers on “...the limits of conscientious refusals describing how claims of conscience should be weighed in the context of other values critical to the ethical provision of health care.”
Knowledge of these limits and values, as well as knowledge of what should count as the ethical provision of health care, are not and cannot possibly be the product of scientific inquiry for medicine as such. The recommendation offered by those responsible for the ACOG Committee report represents a philosophical and ethical opinion—their philosophical and ethical opinion.
The report goes on to, “outline options for public policy,” and propose, “recommendations that maximize accommodation of the individual’s religious and moral beliefs while avoiding imposition of these beliefs on others or interfering with the safe, timely, and financially feasible access to reproductive health care that all women deserve.”
Yet again notice that every concept in play in the committee’s report—the putative balancing, the judgment as to what constitutes an imposition of personal beliefs on others, the view of what constitutes health care or reproductive health care, the judgment about what is deserved—is philosophical, not scientific or, strictly speaking, medical. To the extent that they are “medical” judgments even loosely speaking, they reflect a concept of medicine informed, structured, and shaped by philosophical and ethical judgments.
Those responsible for the report purport to be speaking as physicians and medical professionals. The special authority the report is supposed to have derives from their standing and expertise as physicians and medical professionals, yet at every point that matters, the judgments offered reflect their philosophical, ethical, and political judgments, not any expertise they have by virtue of their training and experience in science and medicine.
At every key point in the report, their judgments are contestable and contested. Indeed they are contested by the very people on whose consciences they seek to impose—the people whom they would, if their report were adopted and made binding, force into line with their philosophical and ethical judgments or drive out of their fields of medical practice. And they are contested, of course, by many others. And in each of these contests a resolution one way or the other cannot be determined by scientific methods; rather the debate is philosophical, ethical, or political.
Lay aside for the moment the question of whose philosophical judgments are right and whose are wrong. My point so far is only that the report is laced with, and dependent upon at every turn, philosophical judgments. The report, in other words, in its driving assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions does not proceed from a basis of moral neutrality. It represents a partisan position among the family of possible positions debated or adopted by people of reason and goodwill in the medical profession and beyond. Indeed, for me, the partisanship of the report is its most striking feature.
Its greatest irony is the report’s concern for physicians’ allegedly imposing their beliefs on patients by, for example, declining to perform or refer for abortions—or at least declining to perform abortions or provide other services in emergency situations and certainly to refer for these procedures.
The truth is that the physician or the pharmacist who declines to dispense coerces no one. He or she, that physician or pharmacist, simply refuses to participate in the destruction of human life—the life of the child in utero.
By contrast, those responsible for the report and its recommendations evidently would use coercion to force physicians and pharmacists who have the temerity to dissent from their philosophical and ethical views either to get in line or go out of business.
If their advice were followed, if they had their way, their fields of medical practice would be cleansed of pro-life physicians whose convictions required them to refrain from performing or referring for abortions. The entire field would be composed of people who could be relied on either to agree with, or at a minimum go along with, the moral and ...
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