Today's News & Views NFRL
December 17, 2008
A Matter of Conscience: Abortion and Hippocratic Tenets
By Jonathan Imbody
Editor's note. This first appeared in the Washington Times and is reprinted with permission.
Americans blanch at abortion coercion in China, where population control agents force mothers to end the lives of their unborn babies who exceed the mandated limit of one child per couple. Yet few Americans realize that abortion-related mandates are also threatening to shanghai U.S. health care professionals who follow medical standards such as the Hippocratic Oath.
Conscientious physicians and other health care professionals are being pressured, under threat of job loss, to violate medical ethics standards by performing abortions and referring patients to abortion clinics to do the deed.
Abortion advocates have been lobbying vociferously to cast abortion as standard medical care and to mandate abortion participation by all health care professionals. Only a tiny fraction of U.S. physicians otherwise are willing to violate the Hippocratic Oath, which has guided medicine for well over two millennia, by participating in abortions.
The abortion mandate strategy may be ill-conceived, but unfortunately it is not ill-fated.
Abortion, which neither heals nor comforts, does not qualify as standard medical care under historical medical standards; it has only recently and politically infiltrated health care. Since American health care professionals have long enjoyed a measure of autonomy in making professional decisions, mandating participation in a procedure prohibited by long-standing medical ethics standards seems likewise implausible.
But abortion ideology and zeal have a way of trumping all notions of ethics and professionalism.
Aggressive abortion mandate advocates dominate the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a highly politicized medical specialty group with vast influence over the profession of obstetrics and gynecology. Last November, ACOG issued an official ethics statement tellingly entitled, "The Limits of Conscientious Refusal in Reproductive Medicine." The ACOG statement ignores the role of objective standards in conscientious objections to abortion. ACOG instead denigrates conscience as a mere subjective "sentiment." In reality, however, health care professionals who object to abortion do so not because of subjective feelings but because killing the unborn contravenes Hippocratic, biblical and other life-affirming objective ethical standards.
By contrast, abortion ideology rests on the subjective, unanchored notion of "privacy" and "patient autonomy." By ripping conscience from its foundation of objective standards and demoting it to the level of subjective feelings, ACOG paints abortion objections as a clash between a physician's feelings and a patient's autonomy. With autonomy elevated as the ethical trump card, physicians and all ethical standards must bow in submission.
Having demoted conscience to the subjective realm and elevated patient autonomy to a position of unchallengeable supremacy, ACOG opposes faith-based ethical standards as "an imposition of religious or moral beliefs on patients." ACOG even incredibly contends that pro-life obstetricians should not only be required to perform or refer for abortions; they should also relocate their practices close to abortionists to make such referrals more convenient.
Given the official link between ACOG ethics positions and physician board certification, obstetricians who refuse to follow ACOG's abortion mandate now presumably stand to lose their hospital privileges and their livelihood. Medical ethics thus would be turned upside down, as life-honoring physicians lose the ability to practice medicine simply for following the Hippocratic Oath.
Meanwhile, the abortion mandate movement will soon tap potentially irrepressible numbers in Congress and powerful advocates in the White House and the administration.
President-elect Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton and other abortion advocates have strenuously opposed a modest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation that would ensure freedom of conscience in health care. The regulation would finally implement over 35 years of federal civil rights law aimed at protecting health care professionals from abortion-related coercion.
The HHS regulation, expected to be finalized before Dec. 20, could be overturned by a pro-abortion Congress and president, either through new legislation or a new regulation.
Mandating abortion participation in health care is rife with irony. Most Americans easily recognize the hypocrisy of forcing "pro-choice" ideology on all health care professionals. The injustice of ending the lives of innocent unborn children has only persisted in this country, where most citizens oppose abortion on demand, under the smokescreen of choice.
By driving out pro-life obstetricians and gynecologists who refuse to participate in abortions, abortion mandates would ironically decrease women's access to some of the most conscientious and compassionate physicians in America, many of whom volunteer free medical services to poor women. Abortion mandates threaten to shut down thousands of life-affirming, faith-based hospitals and clinics that provide care in some of the nation's most underserved communities.
Maybe that's what it will take for Americans to penetrate the fog of abortion propaganda and recognize that breaching the foundational right to life imperils all other rights.
Jonathan Imbody is vice president of government relations for the Christian Medical Association.