The Catholic Thing
Conscience and the Law in New York Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 03 August 2009

As the late Henny Youngman told it, Moses came to the top of Mt. Sinai, looked about and said, “This would be a wonderful place to build a hospital.” But life in Mt. Sinai hospital in New York was not so wonderful recently for Catherina Lorena Cenzon-DeCarlo, thirty-five, a Filipina nurse, who was compelled to participate in a late-term abortion. When she joined the staff in 2004, she made it known that, as a Catholic, she had religious and moral objections to participating in abortions.

The administrators raised no objections, and professed themselves willing to make accommodations. The case at hand involved a woman twenty-two weeks pregnant. The patient was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a medical condition described as “a complication involving hypertension and protein in the urine.” Ms. Cenzon-DeCarlo thought that the standard treatment prescribed magnesium sulfate, not an abortion. But the hospital was understaffed; her supervisors pressed her into service. She pointed out that other nurses could be called. Still, the supervisors would not have it, and the doctor would suffer no delay.

Cenzon-DeCarlo was threatened with the charge of “patient abandonment” and, with that, the loss of her career. With that kind of threat she finally relented, and participated in the surgery under protest. But in the course of that surgery, as she later charged, she was "forced to watch the doctor remove the bloody arms and legs of the child from its mother's body with forceps" and then carry those parts away.

Ms. Cenzon-DeCarlo has filed suit now against the hospital, invoking the rights of conscience that are still part of federal law, quite apart from the moves of the Obama Administration to sweep all of those protections from the books. If she and her lawyers persuade a jury, the hospital could be stripped of its federal funds, which in 2007 amounted to $211 million. That kind of penalty could teach a lesson that reverberates.

But the law is one thing, the administering of the law is another. The federal laws to protect the conscience of doctors and nurses spring from an ethic that is not widely shared in New York. To use some older language, the political class that “forms the regime” in New York – the people who hold office, public and private, and who move in the climate of opinion in the city and state – just will not put up with these claims of the nurse. In the air of New York, abortion is regarded as a right, unalloyed and urgent. No one who obstructs the honoring of that right is likely to be regarded as doing anything remotely “rightful.”

But the case also discloses the tensions at work these days in claims of “conscience.” “Conscience” is often described as the understanding held by any person of “his own values.” The claim of conscience is a claim of respect for the integrity of a person’s beliefs, quite apart from the substance and character of those convictions. But that recent version, widely diffused, stands in sharp contrast, to the understanding taught by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In this understanding, “conscience” is a matter of knowing, not feeling; it is directed to a set of objective moral truths, or what some of us call the natural law.

But as John Paul II complained, those people steeped in the ethic of relativism will see the teaching of the Church merely as an effort to “‘exhort consciences’ and to ‘propose values’, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.” Seen in this light, Ms. Cenzon-DeCarlo is merely invoking her personal, subjective beliefs. And in doing that, she is resisting the needs of someone bearing a genuine right, recognized in the law and binding on everyone. Her “religious claims” are no more likely then to be honored than “religious claims” of the man who insists on having his widow burned on his funeral pyre.

But if the claim of conscience is understood in its deeper sense, Ms. Cenzon-DeCarlo is challenging nothing less than the moral ground, and therefore the moral justification, of the law itself. It is not merely that the right to abortion should not be binding on her; but rather that the laws on abortion are built now on an understanding deeply corrupted: they should not be regarded as valid for anyone. And yet, that makes things, for her, even worse. For matters not overly urgent or important, the law can give many prudential exemptions. But when the political class is convinced that abortion is thoroughly, unarguably right, no words against it will be honored, no exemptions will be brooked.

On the other hand, what if a jury of ordinary people simply react as ordinary people would to the picture of a baby dismembered, with each bloody part carefully removed from the womb? What if the case breaks through the haze of slogans and brings home to people directly, in their face, what abortion really is? Fr. James Burtchaell used to say that the Church, drawing on its vast experience, holds up to people a vivid portrait of what they will look like if they pursue the lives they are misusing. In this courtroom in New York, this young woman, the niece of a bishop in the Philippines, is doing the work of the Church.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and is one of the architects of the Defense of Marriage Act.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
the wisdom of children
written by Jennifer B, August 04, 2009
My 13 year old said to me last night, "How could anyone with a heart be for abortion?" It's a reasonable question, I think. Perhaps Americans have become so alienated from their own spirit in the quest for money, sex, and toys that they don't listen to the basic wisdom of their hearts. God bless Nurse Cenzon-DeCarlo, and may she heal from this trauma.
written by Willie, August 04, 2009
This brave woman is a powerful witness to the adherence to “First Principles" and the teachings of the Catholic Church. In this age of relativism and ridicule, she as well as the contributors to this website should be praised for their courage.
written by Liz, August 04, 2009
Jennifer B: Unfortunately children are seen as a commodity by many people. They are viewed as a "right" to have or have not. Many forget a child is a gift from God and would laugh at you if you told them that. We are no longer a God-centered civilization. I see more and more people who think they are equal to or superior to God - we have "humanized" God to the point where He is just like us - just folks. We see no consequences to our actions because we say God is Love. God is also Justice
written by Lisa, August 05, 2009
What this article doesn't seem to mention is that preeclampsia is highly dangerous to women, who run the risk of seizures. Magnesium sulfate is used to stabilize women until delivery and might have been unsafe for someone only 22 weeks pregnant. It's unlikely that she saw her child as a commodity, given that abortion is legal much earlier than 22 weeks. The article doesn't mention how serious the preeclampsia was. Perhaps this woman has tragically lost her child. Where is the compassion for her?
Too Interesting ...
written by Richard A, August 05, 2009
Lisa: "Might have been unsafe?" The nurse was told she was assisting in the treatment of preeclampsia, and objected immediately that a D&C was ordered without first even attempting magnesium sulfate. It is clear from the events that the preeclampsia was a cover for performing a second trimester abortion, and for coercing the nurse's participation in it.
written by Lisa, August 06, 2009
Richard: What I meant to say was not that the magnesium sulfate might have been unsafe, but that waiting until the mother could deliver might have been an unsafe option. Just from reading this article, nothing is clear to me. How serious was the preeclampsia? Was the woman otherwise in good health? What were the risks of waiting? There are situations, terrible as they are, in which saving the mother's life involves the loss of the child's. How do we know this wasn't one of them?
written by Richard A, August 06, 2009
Lisa: a column linked to from this web site on August 3 makes the point that the patient was not even on magnesium sulfate before the D&C was ordered, and that Cenzon-DeCarlo's objections were based, in part, on that fact. All of your follow-up questions are irrelevant; the doctor never even attempted the preferred, first treatment if preeclampsia were in fact the excuse for the "D&C".
written by Elizabeth, August 07, 2009
For those that feel this case was a matter of trying to save the life of the mother over that of the child, I ask, "Who determines the mother's life is of more value than that of the child?" I'm sure there are cases in which a decision may actually have to be made, but it seems in this case, the doctor chose to provide care to one patient in lieu of another and he violated the rights and obligations of another health professional by forcing her to participate.

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