As the debate over the best way to craft a needed health care reform bill in America rages on, it's a good idea to step back from abstract principles to remind ourselves of their real-life implications.
One shocking example is the case of Catherina Cenzon-DeCarlo, a Catholic nurse who says the New York City hospital she works for threatened her with termination and revocation of her nursing license if she didn't participate in an abortion, an experience she describes as "a horror film unfolding" (see story, Pages 6-7). This took place despite the fact that the hospital receives federal funds and therefore is legally bound to follow conscience protections for health care personnel who refuse to perform certain procedures because of religious objections.
Place yourself for a moment in Cenzon-DeCarlo's shoes. Although the hospital knew her objection to abortion -- in writing and from the moment she was hired five years ago -- a day came when she found herself shouted at by hospital staff and doctors, and bagging the tiny, bloody limbs of a 22-week-old just-aborted baby.
It takes very little imagination to feel outrage that in 21st-century America, the land of the free, any one of us might be coerced into participating in something we find morally repugnant.
And yet, we don't have far to look to see that it happens far more commonly than most people realize. A long record of litigation -- and in some cases, even state mandates -- demonstrates the increasing pressure that Catholic pharmacists have come under to fill prescriptions for drugs that cause chemical abortions, despite their conscience objections.
Nurses are particularly vulnerable to such pressures because they have very little leverage in their workplaces, according to representatives of the National Association of Catholic Nurses. "As a nurse, your employment is really dependent on your employer," said Pamela Richardson, a board member of that organization. And for many nurses, the choice comes down to either following their conscience or finding another line of work. "Frankly, if I was placed in that position, I would feel it was my moral obligation to quit my job," she said.
In the coming year, President Barack Obama is expected to unveil a new policy and measures for conscience rights' protections, which he has promised would be no less robust than the previous administration's last-minute regulations that he has suspended.
Whatever he puts into place, it is clear that even strict laws -- like the ones that should have protected Cenzon-DeCarlo -- are not enough. The federal government must also follow through with robust enforcement.
But there is also grounded concern that some proponents of abortion are working to undermine conscience protections in draft versions of the health care reform bill. Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali, who heads the U.S. bishops' pro-life efforts, appealed in late July to House members that they "make this legislation 'abortion neutral' by preserving long-standing federal policies that prevent government promotion of abortion and respect conscience rights."
No Catholic in tune with the Church's magisterium disputes that some form of health care reform is an imperative -- this is an issue that Catholic Americans and their bishops historically have spearheaded.
But these ethical concerns are not insignificant details. It is time to reform health care reform.
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