Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide

A classic American film, The Longest Day, chronicles the invasion of Normandy by the Allies on June 6, 1944. That fine movie is itself based on a fine book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan. I liked the movie so much I read the book. And in reading it, I was impressed that the Allied plan was not just to secure a beachhead, which would have left them vulnerable to counter-attack, but to break out from the beachhead as soon as possible, to move inland. Pockets of German soldiers near the beaches could be dealt with later. In military parlance, that is called “mopping up.”

And that, I am afraid, is largely what the pro-abortion forces have done in the law (they are being turned back in the culture). They have secured their beachhead, flanked the pro-lifers, and are now turning back to mop up, to eliminate the pockets of pro-life resistance.

Of course, one of the strongest pockets of resistance is among doctors, nurses, hospitals, and others who refuse to participate in abortion, or similar practices. They rely on long-honored rights to freedom of conscience, including protection from being forced to act contrary to what one’s conscience dictates is morally right. Still, pro-abortion activists are determined to force pro-lifers to participate in morally repugnant practices, and are changing the laws around the world to do so.

Presently, for instance, legislation is pending in the province of Ontario in Canada and in the state of Victoria in Australia to force medical professionals to participate in abortions and other anti-life activities. If they refuse, they will lose their medical licenses; it’s as simple, and diabolical, as that. And do not delude yourself – pro-abortion groups in the United States have been pushing such laws in state legislatures for years.

Earlier this year the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued a statement proposing that doctors who refuse to perform abortions should be required to refer someone seeking an abortion to a doctor who will. The moral problem, of course, is that to refer for a procedure one believes is immoral is to make oneself complicit in the subsequent immoral act. Conscience protection, if it means anything, means that one cannot be forced, in violation of one’s conscience, to do, directly or indirectly, what one considers to be immoral or unethical.

ACOG’s opinion, in fact, prompted Secretary Mike Leavitt of HHS to consider implementing regulations to enforce existing federal legal protection of conscience, an action he wrote about on his blog following a leak of the draft regulations to The New York Times. Leavitt was undeterred by the vitriolic responses hurled at him by the pro-abortion camp when he discussed the issue of conscience, and eventually promulgated the regulations. (The comment period on those proposed regulations ends September 25. If you are concerned that some seek to eliminate conscience protection for pro-life Americans, by all means file comments [con[email protected]] yourself in support of the regulations.)

As do most supporters of “abortion rights,” ACOG seems to think all “enlightened” people agree with its view. I am sure they were surprised by what they encountered at the meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB) on Thursday, September 11.

The PCB is preparing to issue a white paper on conscience protection issues. One of the witnesses on September 11 was Anne Drapkin Lyerly, M.D., Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Duke University School of Medicine, and Chairman of the Ethics Committee at ACOG. Following the conclusion of the panel she was on, “Conscience in the Practice of the Health Professions,” she was questioned by PCB member and Princeton professor, Robert George.

I invite you to read the transcript. Professor George pointed out the unacknowledged scandal here, like the people who pointed out, in the fable, that “the emperor has no clothes.” ACOG presents moral and philosophical opinions as if they were scientific and medical facts. In other words, wittingly or not, it disguises its own policy preferences behind a cloak of medical terminology. Thus, it confuses people – and advances the pro-abortion cause. As Professor George put it, “the special authority the report is supposed to have derived from the standing and expertise of its authors as physicians and medical professionals. Yet at every point that matters, the judgments offered [in the ACOG report] reflect their philosophical, ethical, and political judgments, not any expertise they have by virtue of their training and experience in science and medicine…Those responsible for the report would use coercion to force physicians and pharmacists who have the temerity to dissent from their philosophical and ethical views to either get in line or get out of business.”

Do not be fooled. This is not a medical debate; it is a moral and ethical debate. It is a debate in which, though those who support conscience rights have hundreds of years of tradition on their side, they face a determined, well-heeled foe who wants to wipe away conscience protection for pro-life Americans. It is imperative that we all enter the debate to protect rights of conscience…before it is too late.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.