BY NANCY FRAZIER-OʼBRIEN IN WASHINGTON DC A SENIOR American cardinal has said plans to deny health workers their conscience rights risks turning the United States “from democracy to despotism”.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago urged American Catholics to tell the Obama administration that they “want conscience protections to remain strongly in place”.
Speaking in in a videotaped message, posted on YouTube, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said: “No government should come between an individual person and God–that’s what America is supposed to be about.
“This is the true common ground for us as Americans,” he said. “We therefore need legal protections for freedom of conscience and of religion – including freedom for religious health-care institutions to be true to themselves.” Cardinal George issued the video a day before he met President Obama at the White House. They met for half an hour. Brief statements issued by the White House and the USCCB said little more than that the two presidents had met for a private, 30-minute afternoon session in the Oval Office.
The meeting was not included in Mr Obama’s daily schedule released to the press and no mention was made of it by either organisation until it was over.
“The president and Cardinal George discussed a wide range of issues, including important opportunities for the government and the Catholic Church to continue their long-standing partnership to tackle some of the nation’s most pressing challenges,” said the White House statement. “The President thanked Cardinal George for his leadership and for the contributions of the Catholic Church in America and around the world.” In the video Cardinal George called for public comment by April 9 on an effort to rescind a regulation of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The rule codifies several existing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination against health professionals who decline to participate in abortions or other medical procedures because of their religious or other moral objections.
The HHS opened a 30-day comment period on the proposed rescindment on March 10. The regulation took effect two days before President Obama took office.
The cardinal said the issue centred on “two principles or ideas that have been basic to life in our country: religious liberty and the freedom of personal conscience”.
He noted that conscientious objection had been allowed for those opposed to participating in a war, “even though it’s good to defend your country”, and for doctors who do not want to be involved in administering the death penalty.
“Why shouldn’t our government and our legal system permit conscientious objection to a morally bad action, the killing of babies in their mother’s womb?” Cardinal George asked. “People understand what really happens in an abortion and in related procedures – a living member of the human family is killed – and no one should be forced by the government to act as though he or she were blind to this reality.” He urged Catholics to say “that you stand for the protection of conscience, especially now for those who provide the healthcare services so necessary for a good society”.
The USCCB published its official response to the consultation on Tuesday. Attorneys for USCCB said that rather than working to rescind a regulation that gives federal protection to the conscience rights of health-care providers and institutions, the Obama administration’s proper role was to enforce the will of Congress as already expressed in existing statutes.
“The question is not whether the policy to be pursued is the strong protection of conscience in health care – Congress has already decided that question repeatedly and decisively by a series of statutes – but how best to enforce the policy of conscience protection already expressed in those statutes,” the response said.
The USCCB comments also said rescindment of the regulation would conflict with the administration’s stated goals of promoting “choice” and reducing abortions; reduce health care options for the poor and other undeserved populations; and perpetuate the “undisguised hostility to conscience rights” and widespread ignorance of existing law that are already rampant.
The USCCB website also includes videos in support of conscience protection by a doctor, a nurse and two medical students.