The Physician's Conscience, Conscience Clauses, and Religious Belief: A Catholic Perspective

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INTRODUCTION

Conscientious persons strive to preserve moral integrity. This requires that their external behavior be congruent with their conscience's internal dictates about what they take to be morally right and feel compelled to do. In our morally diverse world, conscientious persons may come into conflict with each other and with society's moral values. Except for the amoral sociopath, conflicts of conscience are a regular feature of the moral life, Even for extreme relativists, resolving these conflicts is a constant challenge.

Any society purporting to serve the good of its members is therefore obliged to protect the exercise of conscience and conscientious objection. However, this involves a serious dilemma for any pluralist, democratic, liberal, or constitutional state. On the one hand, such a society is committed to tolerance of religious diversity, freedom of individual choice, and "neutrality" with respect to religious belief. On the other hand, optimizing freedom of conscience for some individuals may often limit the legal rights, social entitlements, and moral beliefs of others.

This dilemma is most acute for health professionals who hold strong religious beliefs, some of which cannot be compromised in good conscience. Can conscience clauses protect Catholic and other religious health professionals' moral claims to freedom of the exercise of their conscience? To what extent can these legal measures secure rights of conscience in the face of a liberal, democratic, and secular society's commitments to moral relativism, personal freedom of choice, and an implicit social contract with its professionals? Is there some point at which religious believers are morally compelled not simply to refrain from participation, but to dissent in the public arena using the processes of a democratic society to change public policy? This Essay engages some of these issues in the specific case of Roman Catholic physicians whose religious beliefs are becoming progressively counter-cultural on the so-called "human life" issues. (1) Roman Catholic physicians serve as paradigm cases for all whose religious beliefs compel them to refuse to participate in certain acts, which are legal and even "required" in their societal roles. (2) Although this Essay focuses on physicians are the focus, the same issues confront nurses, social workers, allied health workers, and all others who serve any function in our health care system. Similarly, although end-of-life issues will be used to illustrate particular conflicts of conscience, similar conflicts arise in other dimensions of modern health care, such as contraception, abortion, various types of assisted reproduction, sterilization, stem cell research, and cloning. This Essay will discuss only the ethical dimensions of the conflicts while others at this conference with the requisite legal expertise will discuss the legal aspects of conscience clauses.

Good law should be based on good ethics; in other words, the rights and claims it protects should carry moral weight and justification. Yet, in resolving conflicts of conscience in secular societies the complexity of the legal issues reflects the complexity of the ethical issues. (3) Often they are extremely difficult to dissect. This is significant because once the ethical issues are expressed in law, the debate may be reduced to instrumental and procedural details that cannot resolve underlying moral sources of controversy.

For this reason, much more debate is required before conscience and exemption clauses can be applied in ethically defensible ways. The existence of a statutory protection does not assure the exercise of freedom of conscience. This Essay seeks to examine some of the ethical desiderata behind conscience clauses in the case of Roman Catholic physicians' conflicts of conscience. It does so under five headings: first, why conscientious objection is so important in our day; second, the moral grounding for freedom in the exercise of conscience; third, the components of the physician's conscience; fourth, specific conflicts of conscience for Catholics physicians and institutions; and fifth, competing models of conflict resolution. …