Saturday, March 12, 2011

Issues of Conscience

To what extent should our government impose a uniform code of behavior upon its citizens, and to what extent should it allow for differences based upon conscience? For example, should it eliminate the “conscientious objector” classification or require all nursing staff to participate in abortions? According to World:

• The Department of Health and Human Services announced on Feb. 18 that it is striking elements of a 2008 Bush administration order that bolstered the ability of medical caregivers to refuse to participate in procedures they find morally objectionable…The new regulations…state that such rights should be trumped by other issues like patient access. Calling the 2008 protections “unclear and potentially overbroad in scope,” the Obama administration changes largely deal with controversial contraceptives…(March 12, 2011, 14)

The alleged problem that the protections had been “unclear and potentially overbroad in scope” could have been addressed by merely restating them. Instead, certain protections were simply eliminated. These issues of conscience have broad ramifications. World cites some particulars:

• At New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital higher-ups pressure a nurse to participate in an abortion. Applications for a university’s nurse residency program include a pledge to participate in abortions.

Should “such rights should be trumped by other issues like patient access?” Whose “rights” should be favored? What should prevail – conscience or convenience? There are several ways to answer this question:

CONSTITUTIONALLY: The U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In light of this, it might be argued that the rescinding of these protections interferes with the “free exercise” of religion, sometimes even jeopardizing the employment of people-of-conscience. Had the “free exercise” interfered with the overriding medical concerns for the health of the patients, this would have been a different matter. However, this doesn’t seem to have been the case here. Is it absolutely critical that every nurse and doctor be willing to prescribe or refer for the morning-after pill? Should the convenience of the patient trump issues of conscience?

PRAGMATICALLY: Can a nation remain viable if it continues to coerce non-essential moral and behavioral conformity upon its citizens? Of course, if every soldier opted to become a “conscientious objector,” this would strongly militate against our national interests. However, this isn’t the case. Likewise, if every nurse in every hospital and clinic refused to participate in abortions, the practice of performing abortions would have to be reconsidered. However, we are very far from this. Besides, if there was such universal consternation against abortion, perhaps the law should be changed to prohibit abortions.

What if it is discovered that Christians make better soldiers than atheists? Should the government outlaw atheism? Of course not! What if Muslim cabbies refused to transport alcoholic beverages because of moral considerations? Should conformity be imposed? Wouldn’t the imposition of such conformity be intolerable for large segments of our population?

Government shouldn’t insist upon coercing such conformity unless non-conformity would result in unacceptably negative consequences. We seem to forget that it is conscience, and only secondarily law, that holds a society together. Our second president John Adams was adamant about this:

• We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

In light of this, coercing conformity at the expense of conscience is myopic, and perhaps even self destructive. It was never intended that national interests should impose upon religious matters of conscience. Our Federal system would never have come into existence without the provision of the free exercise of religion, nor will it be able to continue for long without it. Our Founding Fathers knew all too well the mindset of the Apostles:

• Acts 4:19: But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you [the governing Sanhedrin] rather than God.

God had to come first! Our country has thrived upon this understanding. It will whither without it.

(Sent to President Obama)

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