Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Re: The Limits of Conscientious Refusal in Reproductive Medicine

ACOG Committee on Ethics Opinion No. 385: November, 2007

Letter of Protest from the Catholic Medical Association (USA)

The Linacre Quarterly 75(2) (May 2008): 92-95.
© 2008 by the Catholic Medical Association. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission

Official CMA Correspondence
On November 7, 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Ethics released an opinion, "The Limits of Conscientious Refusal in Reproductive Medicine"-an unprecedented attack on the conscience rights of practicing physicians. After consultation with its membership and other leading national organizations, the Catholic Medical Association responded in the letter to ACOG Board President Kenneth Noller, M.D., reprinted below. CMA will continue to engage ACOG, and the American Board of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, until this issue is resolved.- Lancet Editor's Note.

February 28, 2008

Dear Dr. Noller:

On November 7, 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Ethics released an Opinion,"The Limits of Conscientious Refusal in Reproductive Medicine" (the "Opinion"), which attempts to resolve the issue of ethically appropriate limits of conscientious judgments in reproductive medicine. This is an issue that demands serious attention and sustained dialogue. Unfortunately, however, the Opinion not only fails to provide helpful guidance, but is so flawed that it threatens the reputation of ACOG itself. The Catholic Medical Association urges ACOG to rescind this opinion immediately.

The Committee on Ethics' Opinion exhibits three fatal flaws:

(1) it is woefully inadequate in basic ethical theory and analysis;

(2) the "considerations" advanced to limit conscientious judgments are so vague and contentious that they cannot meaningfully function as ethical or professional guidelines; and

(3) the solutions proposed are unjust, unworkable, and harmful to the profession of medicine. We elaborate on these points briefly below.

1. Flaws in Ethical Analysis.

The Opinion contains a seriously flawed and gratuitously condescending approach to conscience. The Opinion describes conscience in limited, negative, emotional terms, emphasizing such terms as "private," "sanction," "sentiment," and emotions such as self-hatred. At best, the Opinion notes, "Personal conscience, so conceived, is not merely a source of potential conflict." In fact, however, while conscience is a personal, subjective judgment, it is not merely "private" or relativistic. Conscientious judgments provide guidance both for good actions that should be done and unethical actions that should be refused. It is true that conscientious judgments are at times accompanied by emotion, particularly in conflict cases. Still, conscience is not a matter of feeling, as the Opinion suggests, but a judgment about moral truth.

In addition to providing an inadequate description of the nature and role of conscience, the Opinion fails to do justice to the ethical issue of cooperation in evil raised by providing referrals for abortion and, indeed, dismisses concerns about complicity in gravely immoral actions.

This disregard for the harm caused by complicity in moral evil is particularly hard to understand given the painful lessons the medical profession learned from physicians' silent tolerance of, or complicity in, the crimes against humanity in Nazi Germany. Here in the United States, in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, U.S. Public Health Service physicians denied treatment to patients with syphilis so they could study the late stages of the disease. Moreover, physicians participated or acquiesced in involuntary sterilizations under color of law in more than 30 more states between 1907 and the early 1970s. All agree now that these practices were unethical and a violation
of patients' rights and that physicians were wrong to cooperate, even tacitly, or to remain silent, even when they were not direct participants.

The Opinion mentions, but fails to describe, what it means by the "set of moral values - and duties - that are central to medical practice." Since the Opinion goes on to list four "criteria" that ostensibly trump physicians' ethical convictions, it appears that these are the moral values and duties the Ethics Committee has in mind. Inexplicably missing in this section of the Opinion is any mention of respect for human life, which has been recognized by most physicians across centuries and cultures as a fundamental value and duty that is central to the practice of medicine.

Finally, the Opinion attempts, in several ways, to legitimize a moral duty to provide any requested "reproductive service." The Opinion appeals to terminology such as "standard care," "standard reproductive services," and "standard practices" without ever defining who or what has established these standards. The Opinion attempts to conflate the duty to provide treatment in an emergency with a new obligation - to provide "medically indicated and requested care" where failure to do so "might" negatively affect a patient's "mental health." This so-called obligation is unnecessary and completely unfounded. Our position is that elective abortion is not healthcare, nor does it qualify as an emergency. In a true emergency, where a pregnant woman's life is in danger, physicians can and should strive to save the lives of the mother and her unborn child.

2. Considerations Limiting Conscientious Refusal.

The "considerations" that the Opinion claims limit conscientious judgments are so vague and contentious that they cannot meaningfully function as ethical guidelines. For example, the Opinion cites the "degree of imposition" as a criterion for overriding the ethical and professional judgment of physicians. It is not clear at all what kinds or degrees of "imposition" will trump ethical judgment, much less why they should. In appealing to the criterion of "effect on patient health," the Opinion unfairly assumes that all requested reproductive interventions (including abortion or egg harvesting) are in fact good for the patient's health. Moreover, it unfairly implies that physicians with ethical objections to such practices are not motivated precisely by concern for the patient's short and long term health. In appealing to the category of scientific integrity, the Opinion overstates the certainty that current science can provide about the mechanism of drugs (such as those used in Plan B). And it fails to recognize that the real "possibility of postfertilization events" inherent in the use of such drugs is a valid matter for a professional's clinical and ethical judgment. Finally, in appealing to "matters of oppression," the Opinion injects a dubious political criterion into the heart of medical decision-making.

3. Solutions Proposed.

The Opinion proposes solutions that are unjust, unworkable, and harmful to the profession of medicine. The Opinion unfairly dictates that only physicians who oppose a specific set of medical "services" should be required to provide patients with "prior notice of their personal moral commitments." We think that all physicians should be ready to explain, whenever appropriate, their ethical convictions with regard to medical practice and care. To suggest that providers with pro-life ethical convictions "practice in proximity to individuals who do not share their views" is unworkable.

The solutions proposed in the Opinion are not only unjust and unworkable, but harmful to the profession of medicine. First, by negatively and narrowly defining conscience and by suggesting that judgments of conscience are best left to "organized advocacy" groups, the Opinion tacitly discourages physicians from thinking and acting in accordance with their judgment of what is ethical or unethical. The demand that physicians provide "professionally accepted characterizations of reproductive health services" shows distrust of professionals and of the quality of the medical profession as a whole. Second, in appealing to the vague criterion of past discrimination allegedly suffered by some people, the Opinion allows values and considerations extraneous to the practice and profession of medicine to dictate treatment modalities.

Third, the Opinion invites lawmakers to enforce compliance with these vague and contentious notions. This would run counter to AMA Code of Ethics, Opinion E-10.05:

"[I]t may be ethically permissible for physicians to decline a potential patient when . . . [a] specific treatment sought by an individual is incompatible with the physician's personal, religious, or moral beliefs."

Moreover, this expressly contradicts ACOG's own Statement of Policy on Abortion:

"The intervention of legislative bodies into medical decision making is inappropriate, ill-advised and dangerous."

Such legislation could not help but undermine the freedom and integrity of the profession of medicine and invite additional litigation and legislation that have nothing to do with promoting the health of women. Indeed, ACOG should be aware that legislation attempting to enforce this Opinion would violate constitutional and statutory protections of physicians' freedom of religion and conscience rights at federal and state levels. Finally, driving out physicians who respect the value of every human life - born and unborn - from the profession of obstetrics and gynecology would harm the profession and the health of many women and children.

There is a great deal of work to be done in assisting members of ACOG to practice medicine conscientiously, and to educate patients on what this means and why it is important. We stand ready to assist in this task. However, to be valid, any effort will have to be based on sound ethical analysis, undertaken in a spirit of dialogue, with respect for diversity in beliefs. The Committee on Ethics, Opinion No. 385, falls significantly short in all these respects. Therefore, it should be rescinded immediately.


Kathleen M. Raviele, M.D., F.A.C.O.G.
President, Catholic Medical Association

John F. Brehany, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Catholic Medical Association