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Slow Death

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July 2009

Our parish is blessed with a Eucharistic adoration chapel. The chapel is literally a Godsend, a place where worshippers spend quiet time before the Real Presence of Christ. For over twelve years it has touched the lives of thousands, mine included.

Years ago, my holy hours were often spent in prayer over a difficult case. I drew strength from the Old Testament story of eight courageous people. Seven were brothers told to eat pork in violation of God’s law. They would rather die, and one by one they were put to slow death. The eighth was their mother, who exhorted her sons to hold fast to their beliefs before she, too, was killed. I related to the story. My client, a Catholic nurse caring for high-risk pregnant women, was fired from her job because she refused to violate God’s law by participating in abortions.

As a country, we have never known the persecutions of earlier times. Religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our nation. We believe in the right of conscience. When the Supreme Court legalized abortion, concern arose over whether institutions and individuals would be forced to participate in morally objectionable activities. Federal laws were enacted to protect them, but greater clarity and force was still needed.

In its last months, the Bush administration issued rules providing both. The new federal regulations bar the receipt of federal funds by those intolerant of the rights of conscience of health care workers and organizations. The regulations shield doctors and nurses from performing abortions or other morally objectionable acts. They exempt workers from being trained to perform abortions or give abortion care. They protect pharmacists from being forced to dispense contraceptives and abortion causing drugs. They protect hospitals and medical facilities from being ordered to perform abortions or to refer patients to abortion providers. They protect scientists unwilling to engage in embryonic stem cell research or other immoral work. The regulations ban discrimination against all persons and organizations exercising their beliefs of conscience.

The ink had barely dried on the new rules when the Obama administration moved to scrap them, word by word. The administration claims that they may limit access to patient care (translated: abortions and contraceptives) in rural or underserved areas. It wants to reevaluate the need for the regulations. But there is much troubling about the Obama administrations action. For one, we have always protected the right to conscientiously object. Even in times of great national need, we have protected those unwilling to serve in the military for reasons of conscience. Yet when it comes to abortion, the president is willing to throw that tradition right out the window.

Ironically, the Obama plan runs counter to the rationale for legal abortion. Abortion proponents like our president claim that legal abortion is all about the right of choice. They argue that pro-lifers should not be allowed to force their views on others. If so, then those unwilling to be involved should also have a choice. Abortion seekers should not be allowed to force their views on objectors. And in fact, the Supreme Court has basically said so. On the day it legalized abortion, the Court recognized that states are entitled to protect workers and hospitals unwilling to perform abortions. Abortion may be a “right,” but it is not one imposing a duty on conscientious objectors to provide abortions.

At Notre Dame, the president called for agreement on a “sensible” conscience clause. That may sound harmonious, but whose rights will be sacrificed in the name of sense? Perhaps doctors who gave up lucrative careers to serve in rural areas. Maybe nurses, who lack the political clout to resist. Could be pharmacists, who are needed in our abortion culture to dispense morning-after pills. It might be researchers, for someone must those kill human embryos to serve the president’s quest to end human suffering. Then again, Catholic and other religious-based hospitals may be ordered to make referrals to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. Dedicated caregivers, scientists, and organizations may be forced to leave the health care field to follow their God. If the Obama clause makes that happen, how sensible will the clause be?

The president’s call for a sensible conscience clause should send shivers down our spines, for he seeks to control what is not his to control. Conscience is literally a Godsend, the gift of His Voice speaking directly to each human heart. The right of conscience is the right of every individual to follow that Voice. It is not a subject of consensus, public opinion, or presidential philosophy. To protect individual religious liberty, our founding fathers wisely barred all federal law interfering with its free exercise. But for perhaps the first time in our history, a president wants to make our right of conscience subject government approval, to his notion rather than God’s notion of what is right. For now, the rights of health care workers are on the chopping block. Don’t think it will stop there. Already there is talk that the Obama health care plan will require employers to provide abortion coverage. Evil knows no stopping point.

The president’s Notre Dame speech was met with great approval. Some applauded a school’s willingness to defy its own bishop and Church. Others applauded a masterful orator proclaiming the smooth-sounding words of common ground. Little did they all realize that they were applauding the death of a God-given right.

A slow death at that.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.

© Paul V. Esposito 2009. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Visit us on the web at

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