The Washington Post has an interesting and important article (not that it's the first best thing on the topic, but it's a reminder of the context that the Schiavo fiasco took place and the ongoing presence of this issue) on the rise of assertive religious conscience in the practice of health care.
In Chicago, an ambulance driver refused to transport a patient for an abortion. In California, fertility specialists rebuffed a gay woman seeking artificial insemination. In Texas, a pharmacist turned away a rape victim seeking the morning-after pill.
Around the United States, health workers and patients are clashing when providers balk at giving care that they feel violates their beliefs, sparking an intense, complex and often bitter debate over religious freedom vs. patients' rights.
I won't rehash every incident and example (see Trapper John's Pharmacists Against Medicine from March '05), but given the current state of affairs of religion in public life, this is a topic that's bound to get more and not less contentious the closer we get to election season. One thing that might put the brakes on this at the national level is the disastrous Terry Schiavo debate in Congress. While Americans of all faiths and stripes want freedom of religion, the vast majority of voters want this out of their bedrooms and homes.
The unseemly sight of Bush cancelling vacation plans and rushing to DC (not for Katrina, not for Middle East war, not for Iraq but for a religious right overreach in meddling with the Schiavo family's personal affairs) has put the breaks on aggressive GOP Congressional action. In the 11/05 Pew Poll, only 17% thought Congress "did the right thing" and 72% thought Congress "should have stayed out".
But at the local level, there's clearly room for some expression of faith and conscience. Doctors are not required to perform abortions nor are they required to help the state execute prisoners. In fact, Missouri can't find a doc to perform the process of lethal injection.
The Missouri Department of Corrections established its first written procedure for lethal injections Friday but was unable to meet a federal judge’s Saturday deadline to find an anesthesiologist willing to perform lethal injections.
The issue is that of whether the health professional (including nurses or pharmacists) or the patient comes first. Many times, there's room for compromise (such as transferring a nurse out of an abortion suite, or agreeing that City Hospital and not St. Elsewhere would perform the procedure). But with the advent of Plan B and simpler technology, moving the issue from the large institutions (hospitals, city government) to the arena of small business (e.g.,. pharmacies or free-standing medical offices) is inevitably going to cause conflicts and flare-ups. Small business doesn't have a history and tradition of ethics committees and other institutional proicess to resolve such contentious issues, and throwing it to either the courts or the local political process is both inevitable and predictable (see Missouri and stem cell research for what happens).
To many socially conservative Republicans and religious leaders in Missouri, however, a new political campaign to legalize and protect such research is an evil to be fought in courtrooms, churches and polling stations.
Lawrence Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, called it "morally reprehensible science." Bishops instructed priests to deliver pointed homilies.
Voters may be asked to decide. After the courts weigh in, that is.
Religion belongs in the public arena, but it needs restraint and secular compromise to allow the body politic to function. Secularists need to understand that people of faith are rquired to follow their conscience, but not to the extent that the public is put at risk.
The idea that this will be worked out with comity and sober realism in an era of Republican pandering to the religious right to stay in power is, alas, impossible for these current Republicans to implement. And while Democrats are used to major internal battles on policy, the ones that don't take place on the Republican side are often worse for the country than the ones that do amongst Dems.