Friday, December 19, 2008

A Matter of Conscience

In one of its last dying gasps, the Bush administration has put in place a rule that would allow health care workers to refuse to provide services in violation of their religious or moral beliefs.

The far-reaching regulation cuts off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, health plan, clinic or other entity that does not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other employees who refuse to participate in care they find ethically, morally or religiously objectionable. It was sought by conservative groups, abortion opponents and others to safeguard workers from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways.

This is a no-brainer. In the first place, it should be blazingly obvious to all but the most naive of medical, nursing, or pharmacology students that at some point in your career you are going to be asked to perform or provide a medical procedure or prescription for something or someone that goes against your religious beliefs. The choice is obvious: either provide the required procedure or pills or get out of the business. It’s not that complicated, made all the more simple by the fact that one of the first things they teach you in med school is that you treat the patient in front of you and, unless it’s illegal or prohibited by law, you do it without question and to the best of your ability as long as it is in the best interest of the patient. You do not get to invoke the morality clause, whether you’re treating a pregnant sixteen-year-old or a gay teen with the clap. Do it or find another line of work.

As Hilzoy points out, there is a qualifying clause that states that the rule applies only when “they can do so without compromising either the care they provide or the interests of their patients”. But that doesn’t really work, because the moment a doctor or a nurse looks at a patient and refuses treatment or a referral based on their moral beliefs and ignores the patient’s wishes, then the compromising is already done.

This rule is being heralded by religious conservatives as a safeguard of their precious and delicate feelings, but it’s also their way of imposing their religious views on everyone else, regardless of whether or not anyone else believes that every time a sperm dies or two gay man get married the Baby Jesus cries. But they haven’t really thought this through; what would they say if a doctor or nurse who is a pacifist or a Quaker refused to treat military personnel because they don’t believe in war?

This is also a no-brainer — on another level — for the Bush administration because they know that the incoming Obama administration will do everything within its power to repeal the rule as soon as possible. So the only reason they came up with this sop to the Religious Reich at the last moment is so that they can say that they did it. If they had done it eight years ago — at the same time they were putting in place the gag order for overseas family planning and medical care — they would have faced at least one or more court challenges, so they toss the base another bone as they’re on the way out the door. It’s just another way of proving that when you thought you’d reached the last full measure of cynicism and pandering by the Bush administration, they prove once again that that they’re not done yet.