Proponents of a 'right of conscience' for health workers argue that there is nothing more American than protecting citizens from being forced to violate their moral and religious values. Patient advocates and others point to a deep tradition in medicine of healers having an ethical and professional responsibility to put patients first.
The issue is driven by the rise in religious expression and its political prominence in the United States, and by medicine's push into controversial new areas. And it is likely to intensify as doctors start using embryonic stem cells to treat disease, as more states legalize physician-assisted suicide and as other wrenching issues emerge.
Some argue that health workers should not even be required to refer patients elsewhere for care they find objectionable.
"Think about slavery," said physician William Toffler of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. "I am a blacksmith and a slave owner asks me to repair the shackles of a slave. Should I have to say, 'I can't do it but there's a blacksmith down the road who will?' "
Others say that professional responsibility trumps personal belief.
"As soon as you become a licensed professional, you take on certain obligations to act like a professional, which means your patients come first," said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist and lawyer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "You are not supposed to use your professional status as a vehicle for cultural conquest." Link.
As a frequent flyer in the world of medical services, count me among those who want our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists, and others to leave their moral objections out of the exam room.
Before joining the legal profession, I had to decide whether I could live with working as an advocate for somebody who did stuff I found morally repugnant. I decided that I'd have a hard time working on behalf of someone who I believed to be guilty of a crime, and that meant I wouldn't be able to fulfill the professional obligations of a criminal defense lawyer. So I don't do that kind of work. But for pretty much everything else, I don't feel guilty by association.
Seems reasonable to expect medical professionals to be similarly responsible for finding work within whatever moral boundaries they have.