Intolerance of Conscience Threatens Diversity in Medicine
I recently attended a U.S. Department of Justice conference headlined by remarks by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on religious freedom.
The Attorney General pointedly addressed the false notion, advocated in recent years by abortion advocates including some in the medical community, that professionals automatically sacrifice their constitutional freedoms when they choose their profession: "We don’t give up our rights when we go to work, start a business, talk about politics or interact with the government."
The Attorney General's comments stood in contrast to the agenda of healthcare conscience law opponents such as Affordable Care Act architect Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel and University of Pennsylvania professor Ronit Stahl in a New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece entitled "Physicians, Not Conscripts — Conscientious Objection in Health Care."
According to Emanuel and Stahl, conscripted soldiers get forced into their occupation, so therefore they may conscientiously choose not to participate in areas of moral concern. But because physicians choose their occupation, the authors reason, they lose the ability to conscientiously choose not to participate in areas of moral concern:
"No one is forced to be a physician, nurse, pharmacist, or other health care professional or to choose a subspecialty within their larger field. It is a voluntary, individual choice. By entering a healthcare profession, the person assumes a professional obligation to place the wellbeing and rights of patients at the center of professional practice. Health care professionals are not conscripts, and in a freely chosen profession, conscientious objection cannot override patient care."
Never mind that many physicians actually chose the medical profession to protect life—not to end it. Or that patient care extends to the unborn patient as well as to the already born patient.
U.S. government is reviving religious freedom
The U.S. Attorney General recognizes that the movement to eradicate conscience and religious freedom is not only a threat to medical professionals and their patients, but to the philosophical foundation of our nation: "A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated."
In response to this threat, the Attorney General has launched several initiatives and at the meeting announced the creation of a new Religious Liberty Task Force. The task force is designed to ensure that "all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations. That includes making sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith."
"As the people in this room know, you have to practice what you preach. We are also going to remain in contact with religious groups across America to ensure that their rights are being protected. We have been holding listening sessions and we will continue to host them in the coming weeks."
Discrimination against health professionals starts on campus
Besides attending the Attorney General's speech, I also was invited to participate in one of those listening sessions after the speech, with Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. During that discussion, I highlighted the discrimination being experienced by students who participate in Christian Medical & Dental Associations’ (CMDA) chapters on medical and dental school campuses nationwide. A few examples:
- At a dental school in Ohio, where CMDA had ministered to students for 40 years, school officials denied dental students the ability to form a new chapter, stating, “The group has not been approved because of the emphasis on God and especially because of the Bible sessions as written in the proposal you send. [We]…feel that it is not appropriate for us to endorse such activities."
- At a medical school in Illinois, officials derecognized a 30-year-old CMDA chapter because it did not “meet the Board of Trustee’s policies regarding non-discrimination” because the chapter’s leaders are held to moral standards. Officials stated that because “…students are not eligible to be leaders of the organization if they do not believe in God…your organization’s registration is denied.”
- At a Wisconsin school of dentistry, administrators forbade a CMDA chapter from meeting on campus because of a fear of legal consequences related to federal non-discrimination laws. Apparently officials had no fear of legal consequences related to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
These startling examples illustrate just how far away some academics have wandered from core principles—not only First Amendment principles of religious exercise and free speech and association—but also basic academic principles of freedom of thought and expression. Autocratic officials at government-subsidized colleges and universities, who discriminate against students with religious convictions, may need government guidance that helps them recognize the link between their subsidized salaries and the proper recognition of students' First Amendment freedoms.