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In Texas, a Catholic bishop made two hospitals cease doing tube-tying operations for women who are not going to have more babies. In Arizona, a nun was excommunicated and the hospital where she works was expelled from the church after 116 years for allowing doctors to terminate a pregnancy to save a woman’s life. At the same time, some doctors and other health professionals have faced disciplinary action for refusing to perform procedures or provide medications that go against their religious beliefs.
Should Catholic hospitals be able to restrict doctors from performing common and legal medical practices? Do such restrictions unfairly impinge on the rights of non-Catholic patients and doctors, particularly those in rural or underserved areas where alternative hospitals are not readily available?
This is a toughie. On the surface, one might argue that a hospital should not prevent patients from receiving legal procedures that are in the best interest of the patient – as determined by the patient herself. However, there is this small matter of separation of Church and State – and the commitment of our nation to allow the free exercise of religion.
Not that the federal government isn’t above toying with crossing that line! Fifteen years ago Congress was considering legislation that would have forced colleges and universities to allow military recruiters on campus in the aftermath of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” decision. Some educational institutions had barred recruiters, under the conviction that the military was discriminatory. My Quaker-affiliated college was left with the impression that the Feds would come after us, too, if we did not reverse our tradition of not allowing representatives of the military to recruit on campus. The penalty for not allowing them would be withdrawal of all federal funding: student loans, grants, work/study, and other financial assistance. We’re not a big recipient of Department of Defense contracts!
Such a loss of financial aid funding would be a death-blow to the college, and the school spent long, agonizing hours debating what to do. Although it might be assumed that a Quaker college would receive an exemption from a law that violated the historic Quaker peace testimony, counsel indicated that it wasn’t guaranteed. Other voices piped up that not all students at the college are Quakers – and shouldn’t they be given freedom of choice themselves?
An interesting compromise was finally reached on campus, but it proved a moot point anyway. The legislation was never passed.
The case presents me with the fact, though, that government sometimes does force itself on even religious institutions, applying pressure to conform to a societal standard. At the same time, our Supreme Court has ruled that Amish children do not have to attend school until the age of 16 – making an exception to the law for a community with non-conformist values. Where does one draw the line?
In the interest of religious freedom, I find myself coming down on the side of allowing a religiously affiliated hospital to make decisions based on its most deeply held beliefs. In this instance, I disagree with a Catholic hospital’s withholding a legal procedure from a patient. But I remember how I felt when I was faced with my government’s possibly forcing the institution I love to violate one of our deeply held convictions.
I would hope, however, that wherever possible human life would take precedence over religious tradition. As Jesus once reminded folks in his day, prohibitions against work on the Sabbath are secondary to the saving of human life. “The Sabbath was made for us,” he said, “not us for the Sabbath.” And if a medical facility that serves the public does place its own particular interpretation of religion in a position that jeopardizes the health of patients, I would hope that agreements could be made to allow for exceptions – or for alternatives. That may at times take the intervention of public policy – but only after vigorous discussion and debate explore all avenues of compromise.