Conscience Rights Under Threat

Pope Benedict's Address to Catholic Pharmacists

Health Issues Spark Conflicts

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, June 1, 2008 -- The attempt to limit religion to the purely private sphere is a major area of conflict in many countries. One of the areas of battle involves Christians and Church-based institutions active in health care.

Last week the California Supreme Court heard testimony regarding a discrimination lawsuit brought by a lesbian who was denied artificial insemination. The Associated Press published a background report on the case May 26. Guadalupe Benitez is objecting to being refused treatment by a private clinic, the North Coast Women's Care Medical Group.

The doctors at the clinic refused to treat Benitez based on their religious beliefs. Requiring them to act in violation of their beliefs "is a discriminatory resolution, and it discriminates against Christians," said Peter Ferrara, general counsel for the Virginia-based American Civil Rights Union. Ferrara filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the doctors.

According to the AP report, Benitez had initial success with her lawsuit when a San Diego County trial judge sided with her. Afterward, however, an appeals court reversed that ruling saying the lower court needed to give consideration as to whether the doctors' religious views were a viable defense.

A large number of rights groups, professional associations and religious bodies have filed briefs in the case because of the legal precedent it could set.

During the hearing before the California Supreme Court, Benitez's lawyer, Jennifer Pizer, argued that doctors do not have the freedom to discriminate against patients, reported the AP on May 28.

In reply Kenneth Pedroza, a lawyer for the doctors, explained that his clients had referred Benitez to another doctor and also offered to cover any extra costs. The court has 90 days to issue its opinion in the case.

The conference has no interest in mandating the teachings of the Catholic Church upon secular society, and in the same respect the state has no right, in light of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to force its law upon the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church and her institutions."

Paul Long, Michigan Catholic Conference

Meanwhile, in Michigan debate is under way on proposed legislation that would oblige employers that provide prescription drug plans to include coverage for contraceptives. The pending bills were the subject of a state Senate hearing, at which the Michigan Catholic Conference urged the lawmakers to respect religious freedom, explained a May 14 press release by the conference.

Coercion

"The conference has no interest in mandating the teachings of the Catholic Church upon secular society, and in the same respect the state has no right, in light of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to force its law upon the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church and her institutions," said Paul Long, Michigan Catholic Conference vice president for public policy.

In his testimony to the committee, Long argued that if approved, the bill would impose on Catholic religious institutions the obligation to provide contraceptive insurance coverage. This, he said, would coerce essential ministries of the Catholic Church to act in contradiction with religious teachings.

"If this legislation were to pass, it is difficult to imagine any limit upon the state's ability to require religious institutions to violate the principal tenets of their religious beliefs," said Long.

Another conscience debate that has caused a number of legal battles is the objection some pharmacists raise to selling so-called morning-after contraceptive pills, sometimes also referred to as emergency contraceptive pills.

Refusal upheld

Pharmacists in Washington state won a recent victory, reported Reuters on May 1. A federal appeal court judge in Seattle upheld an injunction that allowed the pharmacists to refuse to sell morning-after pills.

Under pressure from Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire, in 2007 state regulators ruled that pharmacists couldn't withhold any prescription because of their personal objections.

In his decision Judge Ronald Leighton of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state had forced pharmacists into an unconstitutional choice between their religious beliefs and their work, thus upholding the suspension of the law decreed previously.

The decision, however, only relates to the temporary suspension of the law, while a full hearing on the merits of the case is still to take place in coming days.

The pharmacist must invite each person to advance humanity, so that every being may be protected from the moment of conception until natural death, and that medicines may fulfil properly their therapeutic role.

Benedict XVI

In Wisconsin, pharmacist Neil Noesen was not so fortunate. In an article April 28, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper recounted how Noesen, a Catholic, decided that his conscience didn't allow him to sell morning-after pills. In July 2002 he refused to sell the pills to a customer, Amanda Thiede.

Noesen was disciplined by state regulators for his refusal and has lost battles in the lower courts over the issue. He was required to inform his employers of his beliefs and also ordered to take an ethics course. As well, he had to pay the $21,000 cost of the legal process of the disciplinary procedures.

Now he has requested the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reverse the previous rulings on the ground that the discipline violates his constitutionally protected right to express his religious beliefs. According to the newspaper report, it is not clear whether the high court will hear Noesen's petition for review.

No objections

New Jersey also obliges pharmacists to sell the morning-after pills and does not allow objections based on religion. Late last year Governor Jon Corzine signed a law requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions for any drug they sell, reported the AP on Nov. 5.

Thus, New Jersey became the 12th state to oblige pharmacies to either dispense a drug or refer customers elsewhere, AP said. Four states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota -- allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense a prescription.

Controversy over the morning-after pills also exists in other countries. In the Italian city of Pisa an investigation was started after two women complained they were denied the contraceptive by doctors, reported the ANSA news agency April 2.

Enrico Rossi, the health councilor for the local region of Tuscany, claimed that access to the morning-after pill was a woman's right and that doctors were obliged to ensure it was respected, according to ANSA.

One of the doctors involved in the refusal, Marco Bardelli, was interviewed April 4 by the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire. Bardelli explained that he was concerned over possible secondary effects of the morning-after pill. He suggested that instead of going to the hospital clinic, women should go to their family doctor, who is more familiar with their medical history.

Advancing humanity

Benedict XVI addressed the issue of conscience in the area of health care when he spoke last Oct. 29 to participants of the 25th International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists, held in Rome.

The Pope recommended to them the principle of conscientious objection, "which is a right your profession must recognize, permitting you not to collaborate either directly or indirectly by supplying products for the purpose of decisions that are clearly immoral such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia."

"The pharmacist must invite each person to advance humanity, so that every being may be protected from the moment of conception until natural death, and that medicines may fulfil properly their therapeutic role," the Pontiff added.

Benedict XVI also said it is important that all Catholic health-care professionals deepen their formation with regard to bioethical issues. As laws and court decisions threaten to deny believers the right to follow their conscience, the Pope's invitation to a deeper understanding of bioethics is valid also for legislators and judges.

Copyright 2008, Innovative Media, Inc. Posted with permission from www.Zenit.com.

 

 



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