Pope Francis on conscientious objection by health care practitioners

La Croix misrepresents papal statement

Sean Murphy*

Pope FrancisAn article in La Croix International, “Pope reminds health workers to put patients first” includes a subtitle, “Conscientious objectors told that human dignity demands exceptions sometimes be made.” (La Croix International, 20 May, 2019)

The subtitle reflects speculation by critics unidentified by the article’s anonymous author(s) that the Pope’s comments were aimed at “pro-lifers who may object to performing an abortion, even though the mother may, for various reasons, risk serious and even life-threatening physical or psychological trauma should she try to conceive.”

La Croix appears to be alone among news agencies in putting this “spin” upon the Pope’s address (Compare reports by Crux, Vatican News, ANSA, and the Catholic Herald, for example).

“[T]o put patients first” accurately conveys one of Pope Francis’ messages to the Italian Catholic Association of Health Care Workers.

“Conscientious objectors told that human dignity demands exceptions sometimes be made” does not.

Nothing in the text of the of the Pope’s address remotely suggests that human dignity sometimes requires health care workers to set aside their conscientious convictions and their objections and do what they believe to be wrong.

Pope Francis said nothing of the kind.  But that is precisely the kind of demand made by activists and even state authorities in a number of countries, even (as in Canada) to the extent of forcing unwilling practitioners to be parties to killing their patients or helping them commit suicide.

The misrepresentation exemplified in the La Croix article supports such attacks on freedom of conscience (and religion) and exacerbates the problems faced by healthcare practitioners attempting to resist them.

What Pope Francis actually had to say warrants attention by anyone who wants to understand the exercise of freedom of conscience by health care practitioners.

He noted that “any medical practice or intervention on the human being must first be carefully assessed if it actually respects human life and dignity (“di ogni pratica medica o intervento sull’essere umano si deve prima valutare con attenzione se rispetti effettivamente la vita e la dignità umana.”) .

When health care practitioners refuse to provide procedures or services, it is typically because they have made that assessment,and consider the interventions contrary to the good of the human person and subversive of the integrity and dignity of human life: in brief, harmful to the patient.

Conscientious objection in such circumstances, the Pope said, does not just reflect the need to preserve one’s personal integrity, but “also represents a sign for the healthcare environment in which we find ourselves, as well as for the patients themselves and their families” ( “ma rappresenta anche un segno per l’ambiente sanitario nel quale ci si trova, oltre che nei confronti dei pazienti stessi e delle loro famiglie. “)

In many situations, this “sign” may well be a sign of contradiction to the dominant ethos, likely to trigger violent emotional reactions and repression by state or professional authorities. Hence, for purely pragmatic reasons, it behooves objecting practitioners to be careful in expressing themselves. Beyond this, Pope Francis offers advice that reflects the actual practice of practitioners who responsibly exercise freedom of conscience:

La scelta dell’obiezione, tuttavia, quando necessaria, va compiuta con rispetto, perché non diventi motivo di disprezzo o di orgoglio ciò che deve essere fatto con umiltà, per non generare in chi vi osserva un uguale disprezzo, che impedirebbe di comprendere le vere motivazioni che ci spingono. È bene invece cercare sempre il dialogo, soprattutto con coloro che hanno posizioni diverse, mettendosi in ascolto del loro punto di vista e cercando di trasmettere il vostro, non come chi sale in cattedra, ma come chi cerca il vero bene delle persone. Farsi compagni di viaggio di chi ci sta accanto, in particolare degli ultimi, dei più dimenticati, degli esclusi: questo è il miglior modo per comprendere a fondo e con verità le diverse situazioni e il bene morale che vi è implicato.

The choice of the objection, however, when necessary, must be made with respect, so that what must be done with humility, so as not to generate an equal contempt, which would prevent the understanding of the true motivations that drive us. Instead, it is good to always seek dialogue, especially with those who have different positions, listening to their point of view and trying to transmit yours, not as someone who goes up in the chair, but as someone who seeks the true good of people. Be the traveling companions of those around us, especially the last, the most forgotten, the excluded: this is the best way to fully understand the different situations and the moral good that is involved.

Source: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Discorso del Santo Padre Francesco all’ Assocziazone Cattolica Operatori Sanitari (ACOS).  Sala Clementina, Venerdì, 17 maggio 2019.

Photo by Nacho Arteaga on Unsplash

Doctor Fired after Suing Catholic Hospital over Assisted Suicide

National Review

Wesley J. Smith

Colorado doctor Barbara Morris wants to assist her patient’s suicide. She works at Centura Health, a Catholic/Seventh Day Adventist-owned hospital that prohibits its employees from participating in assisted suicide, legal in Colorado.

Morris sued to be allowed to participate in her patient’s suicide by doctor — which would not happen in the hospital. The hospital responded by firing Morris for violating the terms of her contract by seeking to engage in acts in the context of her employment that violate the hospital’s religiously based moral beliefs.

Morris contends she can’t be prohibited from assisting her patient’s suicide because the Colorado law only allows health care facilities to opt-out if the suicide will occur on-site. The hospital is seeking shelter in the Trump administration’s medical conscience protection policies.

Expect more of these kinds of disputes as many U.S. hospitals are Catholic or otherwise religiously affiliated with churches that reject abortion and assisted suicide doctrinally. From the Kaiser Health News story:

More doctors and patients in the country are providing and receiving health care subject to religious restrictions. About 1 in 6 acute care beds nationally is in a hospital that is Catholic-owned or -affiliated, said Lois Uttley, a program director for the consumer advocacy group Community Catalyst. In Colorado, one-third of the state’s hospitals operate under Catholic guidelines.

The ACLU has already sued several Catholic hospitals over the last few years seeking to force them to violate Church doctrine on issues ranging from sterilization, to abortion, to sex-change surgeries.

Medical conscience disputes are going to become far more common as health care becomes immersed in our accelerating cultural conflicts and vexing questions of federalism. Bottom line: The ultimate goal of those who seek to force medical professionals and institutions to violate their religious beliefs, I believe, is to drive pro-lifers and Hippocratic Oath-adherents out of medicine.

ACLJ Vindicates Rights of Vermont Nurse Who Was Unlawfully Forced to Participate in Abortion – HHS Threatens to Pull Medical Center Funding

American Center for Law and Justice

Reproduced with permission

Jay Sekulow*

The ACLJ applauds today’s announcement by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding a Complaint we filed on behalf of a Vermont nurse who was forced into participating in an abortion procedure against her deeply held religious beliefs.

In our Complaint, we alleged that our client, an operating room nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) in Burlington, was coerced into assisting in an abortion in 2017 even though her name was on a list of nurses who, for religious or moral reasons, were conscientiously opposed to such participation and even though other non-objecting nurses were available who could easily have taken her place.

In the more than two decades of work that ACLJ has done to defend the rights of conscience of pro-life health care workers, this is by far the most outrageous case we’ve ever seen. Our client’s most fundamental beliefs about the sanctity of life were simply brushed aside.

Worse, her superiors deliberately misled her into thinking she was assisting in a procedure following a miscarriage. But once trapped inside the OR she discovered that it was, in fact, an elective abortion and that this had been known all along by her superiors who then callously refused to relieve her. To say that she was emotionally traumatized by this event is putting it mildly.

At least four other nurses at UVMMC have confirmed that they too have been subjected to similar violations of their conscience rights. We forwarded them to OCR as part of our Complaint. And after conducting its own thorough investigation of the matter, OCR has substantiated their allegations.

In its announcement, HHS finds that UVMMC has committed violations of the federal Church Amendment – the so-called “conscience clause” – named for the late liberal Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church. The law was enacted in 1973 as a response to the Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade. In general, it prohibits entities that receive federal funding from discriminating against employees who refuse to perform or assist in the performance of abortions because of their moral or religious beliefs.

But, because the Church Amendment has always lacked a mechanism for enforcement by private citizens, its enforcement has depended on action taken by HHS itself. In the decades since 1973, however, such enforcement has, for all intents and purposes, been nonexistent. With today’s announcement, HHS’s Office of Civil Rights has, at long last, put teeth in a law that has lain largely dormant since its enactment.

HHS has given UVMMC 30 days to come up with a policy that will ensure that the things that happened to our client, and others like her, will not happen again. If they fail to cooperate, they lose their federal funding.

This action by HHS is an enormous step forward toward the full protection of conscience rights of all those in the health care field who recognize the sanctity of all human life. The repercussions of today’s action will be felt in every hospital and health care system in the country.

No longer should pro-life health care professionals have to fear that their values – the values of protecting, not, destroying, life – make them somehow unfit or unsuitable for the healing profession. No nurses, doctors, or other health workers should ever be deliberately trapped in a room and forced to participate in something that their employer knows those workers consider abhorrent at the core of their being.

For over two decades the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has been at the forefront of advancing and defending the right of free speech and conscientious objection when it comes to the sanctity of human life. In addition to our work with legislators and public policy makers in Washington and around the country, we have also represented dozens of individuals – women and men on the front lines of the pro-life cause – who have found themselves discriminated against because of their pro-life stands. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers – we’ve gone to court for them before judges and juries from Maine to Hawaii and most points in between.

The ACLJ very much welcomes HHS’s vigorous enforcement of federal conscience rights in this case. No health care worker should be forced to abandon their career because they refuse to abandon their pro-life convictions. If you are a healthcare worker and have experienced a similar situation, please contact us at ACLJ.org/HELP.

I wanted to be a rural doctor in Canada. But our medical education system works against it

The Ottawa Citizen

Emma Cronk

Dear Perth residents, I am sorry.

My name is Emma Cronk, and I was raised on my parents’ 2,000-acre ranch in Parham, Ont., north of Kingston. I am currently a family medicine resident physician in Atlanta, Georgia at Emory University.

I tried for two application cycles for medical school in Canada, and applied broadly: from Ontario medical schools, to the east coast at Memorial University, to the west coast at University of British Columbia. After two years of rejection letters, I decided to apply internationally at Ross University School of Medicine in the Caribbean. I had come to realize that a lot of Canadian students were following this same path. . . [Full text]

A question of conscience: In doing the bidding of their political masters, how far are Hong Kong police willing to go?

Hong Kong Free Press

Keiran Colvert

Here’s a question for every officer in the Hong Kong police – if the Hong Kong government asked you to shoot to kill to clear protesters from the streets would you do it? This might sound like a far-fetched scenario in Hong Kong – a place which has, until now, been dramatically different from Mainland China in terms of citizen’s rights and the rule of law. Having witnessed the grim scenes unfolding in Admiralty yesterday, and given that two people are currently in intensive care as a result of the police action, this question, unfortunately, may become all too relevant for people serving in the Hong Kong police. . . [Full text]

Physician, heal thyself: the potential crisis of conscience in Canadian medicine

What if your faith in doctors having conscience was shaken?

The Globe and Mail
Reproduced with permission

Gabrielle Horne*

“I’m really sorry,” I said, picking the magnifying glass off the floor and checking it wasn’t cracked. “I think it’s okay.”

It was my third day on the witness stand, testifying against doctors from the hospital where I still worked. I couldn’t read the tiny numbers on the document disclosing how much my colleagues were paid, and the hospital lawyer had offered it to me, to end the theatre.

“He’s just softening you up before cross-examination,” my lawyer had said with a wry smile, standing at the podium.

Afterward, I wondered why I’d apologized, in a full courtroom, to this man who had taken a wrecking ball to my life over the previous 10 years. Then it occurred to me: to apologize is a sign of a conscience.

Doctors are expected to have one. Their job is to heal the sick and save lives, and that role evokes an image and expectation of beneficence – doing only good. Doctors invest in that image when they espouse a code of conduct descended from the Hippocratic oath: “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing.” Patients also invest in that image and expectation. When illness strikes, they must often put their lives, their confidence and their most vulnerable selves in the hands of doctors they barely know. The expectation of conscience is at the core of the medical pact.

But what if your faith in doctors having conscience was shaken? [Full text]

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

Death by organ donation: Euthanizing patients for their organs gains frightening traction

Organ donation is a selfless gift to those on transplant wait lists.

But what if we euthanized patients by harvesting their organs?

USA Today

E. Wesley Eli

How should society respond to the increasingly long list of people waiting for organs on a transplant list? You’ve no doubt heard of “black market” organs in foreign countries, but are there other options that should be off the table? 

If you were on a transplant list, would it matter to you if the organ was obtained from a living person who died because of the donation procedure itself? What if she had volunteered? 

Your thoughts on this topic have implications beyond the issue of transplantation.

As the former co-director of Vanderbilt University’s lung transplant program and a practicing intensive care unit physician, I see organ donation an selfless gift to those approaching death on transplant wait lists. 

However, I’m wrestling with the emerging collision between the worlds of transplantation and euthanasia. . . [Full text]

GPs are ignoring democracy on abortion issues

Doctors’ group is demanding members fall into line without expressing their concerns

The Irish Times

Breda O’Brien

The board of the Irish College of General Practitioners, the professional body for general practice in Ireland, has refused for the second time requests from some of its members to hold an emergency general meeting to debate motions on abortion.  

Why is the ICGP so afraid of democracy? This is only the latest twist in a long-running saga that began when Simon Harris announced in a radio interview that abortion services were to be GP-led.

This was the first that GPs had heard of it. They were already over-worked, highly stressed and leaving the profession in droves. Many were stunned that there had been absolutely no consultation with GPs. . . [Full text]

Abortion and the medical profession

The Irish Times (Letter)
Reproduced with permission

Dr. Noreen O’Carroll

Sir, –

Dr Mark Murphy states that doctors who are opposed to abortion are in no way affected by the new service and their conscientious right to objection is respected.

In fact, doctors who have a conscientious objection are legally compelled to make arrangements for the transfer of care of the pregnant woman concerned to someone who will terminate the pregnancy. For doctors who cherish human life from its origins, that is tantamount to making them accomplices in taking the life of a developing baby.

This is an abuse of conscience and contrary to the practice of medicine in the spirit of the Hippocratic oath which prohibits the direct intentional taking of human life.

Dr Murphy, who you omitted to mention is on the staff of the department of general practice at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, is one of a minority of GPs in Ireland who have signed up to provide abortion services; the vast majority of GPs have not done so – 274 was the figure recently reported by the HSE.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of a pro-life group; although as an ordinary citizen, I have consistently advocated for the life of the developing baby to be legally protected and have voted accordingly.

– Yours, etc, Dr Noreen O’Carroll, (Lecturer in Medical Ethics, RCSI), Blackrock, Co Dublin.

The euthanasia slippery slope is here

National Post

Barbara Kay

Last week marked the four-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that validated Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID). At the time, many euthanasiasts confidently predicted there would be no “slippery slope” toward abuses. . . Federal Justice Minister David Lametti has said the government will continue to review the practice of MAID. . . Will he take into serious consideration the opinions of doctors who find the practice repugnant and contrary to conscience? . . .[Full text]