Reproduced with permission
In the April 4, 2018 article, HHS rule lowers the bar for care and discriminates against certain people, nursing leaders, Pamela F. Cipriano and Karen Cox, wrote that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Proposed Rule: Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care; Delegations of Authority expands the ability to discriminate, denies patients health care and should be rescinded. These accusations are unfounded and the rule should be supported.
What the rule does is “more effectively and comprehensively enforce Federal health care conscience and associated anti-discrimination laws.” It is not an effort to allow discrimination but an effort to prevent it by enforcing laws already on the books and gives the OCR the authority to oversee such efforts. This is something that nursing should encourage because it supports the Code of Ethics for Nurses (code).
The code reminds us that, “The nurse owes the same duties to self as to others, including the responsibility to promote health and safety, preserve wholeness of character and integrity, maintain competence and continue personal and professional growth.”
It is precisely because nurses are professionals who hold themselves to these standards that patients have come to see nurses as persons worthy of their trust, persons in whose hands they are willing to place their lives. Being granted by the public this weighty and solemn responsibility is humbling and must never be taken lightly. Thus the nurse’s duty to practice in accord with one’s conscience, to be a person of wholeness of character and integrity, is recognized by the.
It is odd that, despite supporting a nurse’s duty to conscience and the right to refuse to participate in an action to which the nurse objects on the grounds of conscience, Cipriano and Cox insist that the nurse, must assure that others make the care available to the patient. This suggests a failure to recognize that referring the patient to someone who will do the objectionable act in place of the nurse can make the nurse complicit.
The culpability of complicity is well recognized in law and ethics, as an accomplice is liable to the same extent as the person who does the deed. Thus, to make a referral and be complicit in an act to which the nurse conscientiously objects, also violates conscience. We doubt nursing leaders actually support this, as the consequences would be chilling.
When persons are made to violate their conscience, to set it aside, to silence it, moral integrity is eroded and moral disengagement progressively sets in. To move from caring for our fellow human beings to acting on them in ways that our conscience tells us we should not, requires powerful cognitive manipulation and restructuring to free ourselves of the guilt associated with this violation of our deeply held moral or religious beliefs.
Moral disengagement has frightening negative consequences, namely a pernicious dehumanization of persons, including oneself and of society as a whole. Rather than a nurse being someone of moral courage, ethical competence and human rights sensitivity, as our code directs, a nurse would have to be someone who is willing to surrender their conscience to expediency, powerful others, or whatever happens to be permitted by law at the time and place.
No longer would patients find that nurses are persons they can trust. It is precisely because nurses practice in accordance with their conscience that the public continues to grant them high scores on honesty and ethics.
None of this is to say that nurses may abandon patients. By promptly seeking a transfer of assignment that does not involve the objectionable act or by transferring the patient elsewhere without making a referral, the nurse continues to uphold the code by “promoting, advocating for and protecting the rights, health and safety of the patient [and, at the same time,] preserving wholeness of character and integrity.”
Clearly, refusal to care for a patient based on an individual attribute is unjust discrimination and has no place in nursing or health care. But that is not what the rule does. It protects the right to object to being forced to participate in an act that violates a person’s deeply held moral convictions or religious beliefs and from discrimination as a result of one’s refusal to participate in such an act.
To call for rescinding the rule, whose purpose is to protect this fundamental human right, would be short-sighted and could make unjust discrimination more likely and harm not only nursing but also the patients we serve.