Posted by tungtide on September 24, 2008, 10:18 am

One of the many issues that I follow and rant about (in my head, if nowhere else) involves “conscience clauses” for medical professionals. These are legal loopholes that allow the religiously minded to deny treatment to patients on “ethical” grounds. I put the word ethical in quotations because I see nothing ethical about denying treatment to a patient.

Conscience clauses in the news are often associated with pharmacists and their right to deny birth control to patients that have the medication prescribed by a doctor. This release by Health and Human Services seeks to define (and potentially expand) the legislation surrounding conscience clauses.

“This proposed regulation is about the legal right of a health care professional to practice according to their conscience,” HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said. “Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience. Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a health care degree.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Based on how I’m reading this release, a doctor can claim religious or conscience-related disagreement with ANY procedure, patient, or disease. If a doctor believes that HIV is a malady designed to exterminate gays from the planet this legislation would make that a legitimate belief and allow the doctor to deny treatment to the patient. Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered, but the obligation of a health care provider is to provide health care.

While it would strengthen provider conscience rights, the proposed regulation would in no way restrict health care providers from performing any legal service or procedure. If a procedure is legal, a patient will still have the ability to access that service from a medical professional or institution that does not assert a conflict of conscience.

That’s nice, but it fails to address a significant problem or two: First, there may not be a qualified professional or institution that is easily reachable aside from the location involved. That location may also choose to deny treatment and further distress the patient. Second, there is no clause listed that directs the medical professional or institution to recommend an alternate location. The doctor may simply deny treatment, avoid even telling patients of available options, or refuse to provide information about a treatment center that would perform the procedure.


2 Responses to “Clauses”

  1. Ambassador said

    I guess I am going to be one of those annoying persons who log in and take a poll only to select “no opinion” on every question. They really piss me off but I digress.

    After reading your blog, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Boston Legal episode (I love that show, even though I disagree with their political views) where a girl was raped and beaten and was taken to a hospital for treatment. The doctor’s there could not prescribe the “morning after pill” as it was a Catholic hospital. Because of her injuries, she was not released for several days and by that time, she was not able to use the morning after pill. Needless to say, she was against abortions and so she was carrying the rapist’s baby. The doctor’s in this story would not release her or refer her to another hospital where they could prescribe the pill.

    In this case, I guess I feel that if a hospital or doctor has moral objections to the procedure or medication, then it should be that doctor/hospital’s responsibility to refer them to someone else. I do think it is wrong to deny treatment to someone in the aggregate but I don’t really have a problem with an individual doctor not providing the treatment… as long as they refer them to someone else who would not have an objection. Who know, I am probably not making any sense.

  2. tungtide said


    As you rightly know you and I have rather opposing views on many subjects but I think we’re in agreement here:

    I guess I feel that if a hospital or doctor has moral objections to the procedure or medication, then it should be that doctor/hospital’s responsibility to refer them to someone else

    I don’t want to force a doctor or hospital to perform a procedure, but opposition to a procedure should not prevent a patient from getting proper care or information about available care.

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