Commentary

Conscience Protection - For Abortion Providers?

Denise J. Hunnell, M.D.
By Denise J. Hunnell, M.D. | September 17, 2012 | 12:13 PM EDT

In the September 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Harris laments that there is no discussion of conscience protection for abortion providers:

"The persistent failure to recognize abortion provision as “conscientious” has resulted in laws that do not protect caregivers who are compelled by conscience to provide abortion services, contributes to the ongoing stigmatization of abortion providers, and leaves theoretical and practical blind spots in bioethics with respect to positive claims of conscience — that is, conscience-based claims for offering care, rather than for refusing to provide it."

Exactly what does Dr. Harris feel the need to be protected from? As an abortion provider she is free to follow her conscience and provide abortions to women in the United States at any stage of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever. What obstacle is threatening her conscience-based decision to provide abortions? Who is trying to force her to abstain from including abortions in her medical practice?

On the other hand, medical practitioners who oppose abortion face intense pressure from state licensing agencies, insurance companies, and professional accreditation societies to participate in abortions and compromise their moral principles. This pressure comes in spite of the fact that abortion is a wholly elective procedure that, as a major medical symposium in Dublin recently affirmed, is unnecessary for women’s health. Failure to perform abortion causes no harm. Legal protection for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers who oppose abortion is essential for them to work without unfair coercion and discrimination.

The truth is that Dr. Harris is confusing the legal concept of conscience protection with societal and cultural respect and acceptance. The stigmatization of abortion providers is not the result of legal conscience protection for abortion opponents. Rather, it is the very nature of abortion that draws condemnation.

Health care providers who choose to include the wanton destruction of human life within the womb as part of their medical practice must accept that large numbers of people, including many of their colleagues, will find such work morally reprehensible. Abortion is an affront not only to Catholics, but to many other Christians, as well as Orthodox Jews and Muslims. It contradicts human dignity by designating some human lives as disposable. Legal protection of conscience cannot guarantee a general approval of your conscience-based decisions.

Dr. Harris might point to many newly enacted restrictions on abortion as obstacles to her conscience-based decision to be an abortion provider. However, elective abortion has dire physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences for women. Any limits on abortion that currently exist are meant to protect women and minimize adverse effects. Waiting periods make sure women have the opportunity to consider alternatives. Pre-abortion ultrasounds and mandated scripted warnings of side effects make sure women are fully informed of the consequences of abortion. Parental notification laws respect the integrity of the family and protect parental rights. They give young girls the family support they need but may be too afraid or confused to seek. Dr. Harris cannot use her own conscientious decisions as grounds to perform abortions with no legal limitations. The law has a duty to protect the weak and vulnerable from the strong and powerful. The fact that abortion is legal means that thousands of defenseless unborn children are unprotected from the conscience-based decisions of abortionists.

In her closing statement, Dr. Harris asserts:

"Failure to recognize that conscience compels abortion provision, just as it compels refusals to offer abortion care, renders “conscience” an empty concept and leaves us all with no moral ground (high or low) on which to stand."

As long as abortion is legal, Dr. Harris and other abortionists are sadly free to ply their trade within the scope of the law. Be aware, however, that a great many acts are legal yet immoral. A declaration that abortionists feel compelled by their consciences to kill defenseless human beings in the womb will do nothing to remove the stigma of their gruesome occupation. Rather, it will only highlight how malformed their consciences must be for them to desire the deaths of innocent children and the ill effects of abortion on mothers.

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