Countless doctors and nurses across the country are welcoming new federal regulations promulgated by the Trump administration to protect conscience rights in health care. I know this because I’ve been hearing the growing murmurs of concern and even fear in hospital hallways and professional get-togethers as certain practices that have been traditionally repugnant to Western medicine gain wider acceptance. Concerned health care professionals fear that they won’t be able to avoid these repugnant practices and still find employment.
I know good hospice nurses who have left their noble calling over assisted suicide, gynecologists who have left teaching positions they loved because they were expected to teach abortion, and endocrinologists who stopped practicing because they could not in good conscience put a troubled child on puberty blockers.
Even if we, as physicians or nurses, are still practicing without having to violate our ethical and moral principles – and our vow to “first do no harm” – we know that the space where we can do this is getting smaller every day.
Young people aspiring to these vocations know this, as well. I receive phone calls all the time from college students, and even high school students, who ask me if I think it is still “safe” to study medicine. They feel strongly that they can never perform or assist in an abortion, which they understand is the ending of a human life. They cannot imagine suggesting this “option” to a young woman, much less handing her a referral to an abortion facility.
They are, for instance, afraid of being coerced into discriminating against a baby with a disability like Down syndrome by helping to end his or her little life. These young people fear the growing threat of assisted suicide. As a nurse or doctor with a terminal patient, will they have to write a prescription for poison or hand the deadly pills to the patient they’ve come to love and watch them do away with themselves?
Our long and honorable tradition of protecting citizens’ deepest moral convictions from unlawful discrimination is one reason why oppressed and harried people from all over the world dream of coming to America.
The new federal rules seek to preserve that important space in health care for good doctors and nurses determined to practice the principles of Hippocratic medicine according to their conscience. It grants responsibility for enforcing the new rule to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
Freedom of conscience is one of our nation’s most important civil rights. It guarantees that Americans cannot be compelled to do things – say, join a national church or vote for a particular candidate – against their will. In the health-care context, this basic freedom is perhaps even more important, since it protects medical professionals from coercion, retaliation and discrimination for being unwilling to take a life when their whole vocation is based on healing and the preservation of life.
Under the new rule, the OCR will conduct outreach to the myriad programs under the aegis of the HHS. The office will ensure that recipients of federal financial assistance comply with their legal obligation to protect rights of conscience of their health care professionals. The OCR will also have the authority to investigate complaints of discrimination from doctors and nurses who are in danger of losing their jobs because they’re holding strongly to the highest ethical standards of medicine.
I can just imagine the relief of a hospice nurse who has been told to help her depressed patients commit suicide “or else.” Now she’ll have the OCR standing behind her. The simple fact that the nation’s health care workers will now be told specifically that they have conscience rights – and that coercive employers cannot trample those rights – is a huge improvement over the status quo.
Our long and honorable tradition of protecting citizens’ deepest moral convictions from unlawful discrimination is one reason why oppressed and harried people from all over the world dream of coming to America. Ensuring that medical professionals remain free to practice their life’s work and stay true to the highest and noblest principles of their calling furthers that tradition.