In a Clash of Consciences, We Must Protect Women’s Access to Care

Rev. Dr. Carlton W. Veazey

The Medical Right wants more expansive protections for physicians who object to providing reproductive health care services for moral or religious reasons. And they aren't stopping with abortion care and referral.

The Religious Right’s campaign to expand "religious
refusals" has recently intensified. The Medical Right — the fringe medical groups that
share the Religious Right’s anti-choice agenda 
— wants more expansive protections for physicians who object to providing
reproductive health care services for moral or religious reasons. And they don’t
just want to be able to refuse to provide abortion care or referral.

Recently-leaked Department of Health and Human Services draft regulations would
redefine contraception as abortion and, in so doing, extend protections to health
care providers who would refuse women contraceptive access as well as abortion
care. As a minister who believes social justice must include reproductive
justice, I am alarmed that religion is being used as an excuse to deny women abortion
services. In effect, women are being told that their conscience doesn’t count —
or doesn’t count as much as a physician’s. 

The Medical Right’s campaign involves putting pressure on both
the American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Bush Administration to give physicians more leeway
in refusing to refer for abortion services. But physicians already have ample
protection to opt out of providing services if they have moral or religious
objections. Conscience
protections — also called conscience clauses and religious refusals — have been
in place since 1973, when the Church Amendment (named for Senator Frank Church)
was enacted. Congress and the President strengthened that several years ago with
the Weldon Amendment.   

We live in a religiously pluralistic society, and as a
nation we believe in protecting religious expression and freedom. With regard
to abortion and contraception, I believe this means we must accommodate both
the physician who objects to providing abortion services and the patient who
wants and need this service. A physician’s objection to abortion must never result
in a woman being denied a service she wants, needs and is legally and morally
entitled to. 

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The Medical Right is pressuring ACOG — which represents 90%
of the nation’s ob/gyns — to allow anti-abortion physicians to refuse to
provide women with referrals to other doctors who will perform the procedure. The
leaked HHS draft regulations reveal that the department is also under pressure
to broaden its regulations on opting out of services. Taken together, these
proposed restrictions would make it more difficult for women to obtain abortion
services and contraception. 

In this
clash of a healthcare provider’s conscience with a woman’s conscience, women will
lose. An ACOG ethics opinion states the
conflict well:

Although respect for conscience is important, conscientious
refusals should be limited if they constitute an imposition of religious or
moral beliefs on patients, negatively affect a patient’s health, are based on
scientific misinformation, or create or reinforce racial or socioeconomic inequalities.

The
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice supports this position as an
appropriate reflection of American religious and social values. Health
care professionals must provide information and care consistent with the
highest standards of scientific evidence and responsive to the needs and wishes
of individual patients — without ideological or theological restrictions. 

Women’s
health advocates, religious leaders, and people of faith need to stand
together to protect a woman’s right to services and allow her to follow her own
conscience.

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