Rep. Pelosi, conscience is more than a ‘thing’

MANDEL NGAN AFP/GETTY IMAGES House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, speaks during her weekly briefing November 17, 2011 in the … Continued

MANDEL NGAN

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, speaks during her weekly briefing November 17, 2011 in the House Visitors Center Studio at the Capitol in Washington, DC. Pelosi said in a recent Washington Post interview that despite her Catholic faith, she does not support exemptions for medical professionals who do not want to perform abortions.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Nancy Pelosi voiced her opposition to allow health care providers and entities to refuse to perform abortions for reasons of conscience. Knowing full well the efforts by the Catholic Church to encourage support for such conscience exemptions, Ms. Pelosi said, “I’m a devout Catholic and I honor my faith and love it … but they have this conscience thing.”

With respect to the House Minority Leader, Ms. Pelosi not only needs a lesson in Catholic catechesis, but in American civics as well.

According to Catholic teaching, “Conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (Gaudium et spes, n. 16.) To force one to act contrary to his conscience is to enslave him; it suppresses his freedom, undermines his liberty, violates his dignity. For these reasons, the Catholic Church has consistently insisted that the sanctity of conscience be preserved and protected in civil society. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience.” (No. 1782.)

Thomas More, the Catholic patron saint of statesmen and politicians, refused as a matter of conscience to swear to the Act of Supremacy and it cost him his life. As anyone familiar with Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is aware, before he fell to the executioner’s axe, More said, “I die his majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” Thomas More could very well called the Saint of Conscience.

For Catholics, conscience is hardly an idiosyncratic hang-up, much less a “thing” to be derided by a public official.

And this conscience “thing” spoken of by Ms. Pelosi is not just a Catholic thing. From the earliest days of the republic, our country has been firmly committed to the preservation of the liberty of conscience. The inalienable right to liberty invoked in the Declaration of Independence speaks to the freedom of conscience and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for the free exercise of religion before naming the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, and petition. According to James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” conscience is “the most sacred of all property.” (Property, Mar. 29, 1792.)

The fundamental right of conscience does not just cover individual conscience, but institutional conscience as well. Soon after the Louisiana Territory was acquired by the United States in 1803, the French Ursuline nuns of New Orleans wrote to President Jefferson seeking assurances that “the spirit of justice which characterizes the United States of America” would allow them to continue in their spiritual and corporeal works of mercy.

Thomas Jefferson replied on that “the principles of the constitution and the government of the United States are a sure guarantee [that your religious institution] will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.” Jefferson concluded: “be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.”

Our country’s dedication to the liberty of conscience, and the price we shall pay for undermining it, was best summed up by former Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone:

“All our history gives confirmation to the view that liberty of conscience has a moral and social value which makes it worthy of preservation at the hands of the state. So deep in its significance and vital, indeed, is it to the integrity of man’s moral and spiritual nature that nothing short of the self-preservation of the state should warrant its violation; and it may well be questioned whether the state which preserves its life by a settled policy of violation of the conscience of the individual will not in fact ultimately lose it by the process.”

-U.S. v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 170 (1965) (quoting Stone, The Conscientious Objector, 21 Col. Univ. Q. 253, 269 (1919)).

The Protect Life Act, the bill that Ms. Pelosi so strenuously opposed, but nonetheless passed in the House, prohibits discrimination against health care professionals and entities for their refusal to participate in abortions, undergo training in abortion, and providing referrals for abortion. With the majority of American citizens opposed to abortion on demand, such an accommodation of conscience rights not only makes sense, it’s a critical stance to take.

One need not hold any religious beliefs to be pro-life, but for Christians the teaching against abortion is hardly a recent one. It has its ultimate, non-Scriptural roots in the Second Century document, the Didache, commonly called the “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” There we find the unequivocal mandate: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.” The Catholic Church and other Christian churches have not wavered from this teaching for 1800 years.

For Ms. Pelosi and others to have to so little regard for the religious and conscientious beliefs of Americans on this important moral issue is more than disconcerting, it’s deeply disturbing. It is one thing to pursue aggressively abortion on demand; it is another to force pro-life individuals and institutions to carry out this demand. Indeed, for the government to coerce citizens to act in a way they think to be immoral and wrong, is itself immoral and wrong.

The right to freedom of conscience, no matter the underlying issue at stake, is, or should be, a right cherished by all. It is not a “thing” to be discounted. It is not a “thing” to be mocked. The day our government thinks it can trample underfoot the right to conscience is the day it stamps out what our country and Constitution has always held most dear.

Geoffrey Surtees is an attorney with the American Center for Law & Justice and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC. Jordan Sekulow is Executive Director of the American Center for Law & Justice and writes for On Faith’s blogging network at the Washington Post.

  • Blakeman1

    Well said Jordan! Catholics don’t just have a conscience thing. We all have it. As you say, Nancy needs to go back to school and CCD. It would be a far better use of her time than where she is now.

  • FYIColumbiaMD

    ‘The right to freedom of conscience, no matter the underlying issue at stake, is, or should be, a right cherished by all. It is not a “thing” to be discounted. It is not a “thing” to be mocked. The day our government thinks it can trample underfoot the right to conscience is the day it stamps out what our country and Constitution has always held most dear.’

    Not that long ago, the majority of the South believed that integration was morally evil. Their support for segregation of the races was based on their conscience – and they strongly rebelled at the idea of the federal and state governments trampling their beliefs.

    Is your argument above that the federal government was wrong to insist on civil rights when those rights conflicted with the deeply held consciences of so many white Southerners?

  • amelia45

    This claim that rights of conscience allow discrimination against individuals can tear this country apart. If Catholics can discriminate against gays, then those who find a religious basis for discrimination against African Americans may also discriminate. Is that what we want? Some florists may discriminate against gays, others may discriminate against African-Americans, some may discriminate against Muslims. Are we a society or just an amalgam of diverse groups who can’t get along? .

    Laws are voted upon by assemblies elected by the people. Those laws, decided upon by elected officials, are the collective voice of all of us, male, female, christian, mulim, jew, hindu, straight, gay, lesbian, Irish, African, Vietnamese, as well as left-handed red-heads with acne. We are a diverse community and the only way we can make this diverse community work is by respecting each other.

    The laws are about treating each other with mutual respect in our dealings with each other. You can privately feel whatever you want. Churches, synagogs, mosques, and temples may also discriminate in who they allow to be a member and who may receive whatever blessing or sacrament they want to bestow within their community of faith.

    But,out in the broader world, when the Christian inn-keeper has a business of renting rooms to travelors, he may not discriminate against Muslims, or African Americans, or red-headed left-handed people with acne. The Christian florist cannot decide to sell flowers only to Catholics. The government worker whose job it is to issue marriage licenses may not impose her religious views on who gets a license. The nurse or doctor who works in a health facility that gets public funds may not decide which cases he/she works on and may not apply a religious criteria to determine best medical practice.

    I don’t know the answer – but I do know that this appeal to conscience is less about conscience than it is about a way to promote an anti gay and anti-abortion agen

  • AmazeMe

    Not surprisingly for a pair of plaintiffs’ attoneys, Surtees and Sekulow invoke religion, patriotism, emotion and all the other armaments of sophistry in their effort to mislead the jury about the real issue in this dispute. Most importantly, their tender concern for the rights of doctors and other health-care providers to exercise their consciences might cause some readers to miss the point that the whole purpose of the Protect Life Act is to override the right of the person most affected to exercise her own conscience.

    The act would give doctors the right to conceal or withhold information that is vital for any woman to have in making a truly conscientious decision about abortion. And if the failure to provide full information is unsuccessful in coercing her into making the decision they want, they can simply refuse to do what she asks, effectively nullifying her own attempt to follow the dictates of conscience.

    Another important point the authors elide is the fact that health professionals all must be licensed and are regulated by the states to ensure that they provide Americans with health services that meet standards set by their professional peers. The authors apparently see the enforcement of such standards in some cases as “discrimination against health care professionals and entities.” But whether it’s motivated by religious beliefs, mercenary appetite or sheer incompetence, misleading patients about their treatment options or failing to provide them with necessary care or services is a violation of medical standards and an endangerment of patients. Any physician, pharmacist or other health provider who finds that the standards of his profession conflict with his conscience has the option of surrendering his license and going into the ministry.

    Finally, one must question whether the authors really mean to assert the right of religious conscience as absolutely as it appears here. If so, then what recourse does society have to deal with, for example, children wh

  • persiflage

    The underlying theme is not about individual conscience so much as it’s about believing in the pre-eminence of religious conditioning.

    In a secular, democratic form of government, elected officials should function under the expection that they must rise above the constraints of their own religious tradition to govern all the people, including those that do not share their particular religious beliefs.

    Nancy Pelosi speaks to this requirement in public servants, whereas authoritarian types are forever putting dogma and ideology before humility, open-mindedness, and the egalitarian spirit. Government based ideally on humanitarian values has the best chance of serving the greatest number of people. This is liberalism at it’s best.

  • ccnl1

    Pelosi (and the RCC) missed the major issue regarding abortion:

    o Bottom Line 1: The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and STDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the pill or condoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and STDs.

    Bottom line 2-
    Currently, a perfect barrier system does not exist. Time to develop one! In the meantime, monomasturbation or mutual masturbation are highly recommended for heterosexuals who need a contraceptive. Abstinence is another best-solution but obviously the sex drive typically vitiates this option although being biological would it not be able to develop a drug to temporarily eliminate said drive?

  • ThomasBaum

    It seems as if you do not know what a conscience is.

    A person has a conscience not an institution.

    Even if one were not to believe that people have a conscience, the definition of a conscience is that a person has an individual conscience not that a group has a mass conscience and also that it is not an instituion that has a conscience.

    Jesus, God-Incarnate, extended the invitation to “Come follow Me”, the invitation was not to follow His Church, not to follow the bible, not to follow those that follow Him but to follow Him.

    By the way, the Catholic Church teaches that it is a Catholic’s duty to follow their conscience.

    Even tho there is not a draft now when there was one there was such a category as “conscientious objector”, as there should be.

    As far as “It is about letting the Catholic Church legally deny those who work for them the individual choice to use artificial forms of contraceptives or to get sterilizations”, do you know anyone that the Catholic Church has legally denied either of these?

    The Catholic Church does not make civil law and should not.

    No one should be forced to have an abortion nor should anyone be forced to perform an abortion, if we would relinquish our right over our own conscience then we would be no more than wheels in the cog of the state (automatons) rather than human beings.

    You wrote, ” It is quite another thing for the government to empower that Church to impose those tenets of faith on even their own faithful,”, seems to me that if you really believe what you wrote here then you would be quite surprised to find out that there are many Catholics who have a mind and use it and also have a conscience and use it.

  • ThomasBaum

    Based on whose “humanitarian” values?

  • ThomasBaum

    Since a lot of this is about abortion, do you really think that all who think that abortion is actually killing that which is growing in the womb, mostly in the womb, base this only on “religious conditioning”?

    Do you think that there might be some who do not believe in anything “religious” that might come to the conclusion by scientific means that abortion is killing that which is growing in the womb, mostly in the womb, by this I mean that sometimes the fertilized egg doesn’t always get to where it should.

    People can decide whether or not they are going to get an abortion but the truth should not be watered down.

  • kingcranky

    By Sekulow’s own “logic”, any health care professional could, legally, deny him life-saving treatment solely because they disagreed with his religious views.

    That’s why, just like our military, “conscientious objector” status has no place in the medical and health care fields. when nonbelievers have to suffer for the faith of anyone else, it’s time to find a different line of work.

  • persiflage

    ‘People can decide whether or not they are going to get an abortion but the truth should not be watered down.’

    Whose ‘truth’?

    There is little doubt that the anti-abortion sentiment (particularly in those that would resort to outlawing it) is directly associated with religious beliefs.

    There is no doubt at all that the anti-birth control/anti-contraception movement is inspired and carried forth 100% by the Catholic Church.

  • csintala79

    Great argument; however, it is only valid if doctors that see the necessity of an abortion can act as their conscience dictates. This statement taken from the above disquisition is a solid defense of freedom of choice: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience.” It basically states that individual are the arbiter of the morality of their actions, i.e., it is as wrong to force a doctor to perform an abortion if it is immoral to him to do so just as it is wrong to prevent a doctor from performing an abortion if he thinks it is the necessary thing to do. This argument cuts both ways, i.e., it is moot and offers no absolute choice of right or wrong. The conscience of a pro-lifer is not anymore sacred than that of an advocate of freedom of choice.

  • usapdx

    What human can make a rule that is violated is a sin?

  • ThomasBaum

    “Whose ‘truth’?”

    I am talking about the scientific and medical “truth” of that which is growing in the womb.

    People speak of being informed, what is wrong with the whole reality of what is happening in the womb being spoken of?

    Science and technology have come a long way in the recent past in knowing and “filming” the up to minute happenings in the womb, do you object to letting the woman know exactly what is going on so that she can decide with as much information, medically, as she can be given in this day and age?

  • ThomasBaum

    What are you talking about that “conscientious objector” status has no place in our military?

    Do you think of the “government” as your conscience?

  • persiflage

    ‘…….. do you object to letting the woman know exactly what is going on so that she can decide with as much information, medically, as she can be given in this day and age?’

    T. Baum, let’s not be disingenuous here. If a woman voluntarily seeks out this information then it should be readily available – but of course, it should never be required by law as a pre-cursor to obtaining an abortion as some southern states (Texas) are trying to mandate.

    Thus far, federal courts have thrown out these draconian, MAN-made laws – as well they should. The same thing is happening with other extremist rightwing legislation (Alabama) that results in the racial profiling of random Hispanic individuals i.e. by way of the republican obsession with illegal immigrants.

    The GOP is fixated on virtually everything that offends their particular ideology while doing exactly nothing positive for the general well-being of the nation. Protestant fundamentalism is in bed with Catholic fundamentalism – Martin Luther would be both shocked and proud at the same time.

  • Catken1

    “Since a lot of this is about abortion, do you really think that all who think that abortion is actually killing that which is growing in the womb, mostly in the womb, base this only on “religious conditioning”? ”

    Well, anti-choicers do tend to discount the humanity, agency, and full human sovereignty of the owner of the womb (give you a hint – it’s NOT the fetus) based on “religious conditioning” that tells them that a non-virginal woman who doesn’t want to be a mother is a Sinner and therefore does not deserve human rights or humane treatment or full sovereignty over her own body parts.

    Any woman who wants any information about what is going on in her womb – her womb, not the fetus’s – may find out. If she chooses not to, that is her prerogative, and it is not your place to force it on her, any more than it is your place to go to a potential blood donor who has chosen not to donate and insist that he sit down with you, whatever else he is doing, and look at pictures and watch videos of all the people he is refusing to save by not giving blood every two months.

    If someone is growing inside your body, and you do not want them there, do you think you ought to be forced to hear all about how important and innocent and good they are, and how it’s your DUTY to provide them with support and sustenance for nine months, at great cost to yourself, and how selfish it is to want to take care of yourself and your existing family rather than giving yourself over to this other person as their property, before you have them evicted?

  • Catken1

    And some of us consider it a matter of conscience to insist that women be treated as full human beings, not the property of others.
    What happens when a Catholic woman, pregnant with her fourth or fifth child, falls under the care of a doctor who considers it a matter of conscience to ensure zero population growth, and thus performs an abortion on her without her consent? Or when that same doctor sterilizes a Catholic woman after her second child is born without her consent? Is that, too, OK? What about his right to uphold his belief that women who have too many children in the First World are taking needed resources from the desperate poor children in the Third World, and that they need to have their childbearing forcibly controlled in order to protect the lives of those innocents elsewhere?

    If a Catholic doctor is permitted to impose his conscience upon the body of a rape victim, denying her emergency birth control or an early abortion so that she is forced to serve as an incubating machine to her assaulter’s child against her will, why isn’t a non-Catholic doctor permitted to impose his or her conscience upon a Catholic woman who does not want to be sterilized or to have her baby aborted?

    And what happens when one of those people with consciences that they seek to force on other women’s bodies gets in an accident, desperately needs a blood transfusion, but is under the care of a Jehovah’s Witness doctor who believes that such a procedure would condemn both patient and doctor to hell, and thus refuses either to perform it or to call another doctor to do so? Is it OK to let them die so that the doctor can feel good about saving their soul?

  • allinthistogether

    TBaum: agreed, conscience is very much an individual’s domain, not an institution’s. However, as others have said here, this argument cuts both ways. If “no one should be forced to have an abortion nor should anyone be forced to perform an abortion,” then it follows that if a woman’s conscience indicates that it is best to have an abortion, she should be allowd to have an abortion. This standard of basing laws on individual conscience becomes nearly impossible to legislate or enforce, because there’s no controlling, or even knowing, what another person’s conscience is going to feel is right or wrong. However, I do agree that these issues should be handled very carefully.

    Another critical point here is “what is a conscience?” It is pretty clear that the “inner voice” that we call conscience is a product of both nature and nurture, of genetics and culture. If that were not the case, the Catholic Church would not invest so much effort in educating and shaping the consciences of it’s followers (I had 13 years of Catholic schooling). So if our church, family, neighbors, and community contribute to the shaping of our consciousness and conscience, how much of conscience, how absolute is its opinion? This is all rides on the question of how well can we “know” what is right or best? It is clear that humans get it wrong very frequently. Some people are more rigorous and “conscientious” about what they believe they know, while others are willing to believe pretty much anything, then decide that they “know” it to be true. Some decide something is absolute then preach it as gospel. Others of more humble perspective choose to believe in the truth of an idea, and remain open to counterveiling evidence. So how reliable is each individual’s conscience?

    What of those of us whose conscience tells us that our tax dollars should not be distributed to religious organizations for their use in providing services to others? Should we be given an exemption from paying taxes?

  • allinthistogether

    All good points. Thank you.

  • ThomasBaum

    Catken1 wrote:

    “If someone is growing inside your body, and you do not want them there, do you think you ought to be forced to hear all about how important and innocent and good they are, and how it’s your DUTY to provide them with support and sustenance for nine months, at great cost to yourself, and how selfish it is to want to take care of yourself and your existing family rather than giving yourself over to this other person as their property, before you have them evicted?”

    I did notice that you said “someone” and “before you have them evicted”.

    I’ve never quite heard an abortion being referred to as “having someone evicted from someone else’s body”.

    And as far as “giving yourself over to this other person as their property”, I see that you acknowledge the one in the womb as a person.

  • ThomasBaum

    I don’t think that we should go back to the coat hanger days.

    If one decides to get an abortion that is their decision.

    They should not be browbeat by either side and they should also not be lied to by either side.

    As far as the “exemption” you are talking about, hypothetically speaking, why stop there, what about those that disagree with war, disagree with the interstate highway system, disagree with the raising of meat, disagree with anything, taken to it’s, basically natural conclusion, pretty much everyone would have a reason for an exemption, would they not?

    I am merely here to tell the whole world that God’s Plan is, ultimately, for everyone to be with God in God’s Kingdom, it is that simple.

    All of this bickering back and forth will ultimately, most likely, bring everything to a halt with everyone at everyone else’s throat.

    Sometimes it is absolutely amazing that people wonder why there are wars upon wars upon wars and yet if they would only look at what is written on these blogs and others, it should be crystal clear, there are many, many reasons and I would say that our humanity is the front-runner.

    Some think that we have a fallen nature, others don’t, we all pretty much prove that we do.

    I don’t have any answers but, not to worry, many have many answers, not that these answers will work, but there does not seem to be a shortage of “answers” out there.

    As far as “conscience” goes, it seems as if one attempts to follow their own conscience or one lets someone else or something else to be their conscience.

    As I have said many times, a man made law only determines whether something is legal or illegal not whether something is right or wrong.

  • citizen625

    The two authors are paid by the religion business to spout the party line: Men are in charge and control the money. Women follow the rules and take orders and breed little replicants. Religion: leading social divisions for millennia and still sucking people in. And religion truly is the opiate of the masses which is why that phrase upsets them so much. Tax religion now.

  • persiflage

    ‘As I have said many times, a man made law only determines whether something is legal or illegal not whether something is right or wrong.’

    Thus perfectly demonstrating the relative, subjective nature of both laws and morality – in the form of thoughts, words, deeds, and perhaps most importantly, beliefs.

    Since there is no objective evidence supporting religious beliefs, the natural default for behavioral guidelines becomes man-made laws. Religous codes of behavior were no doubt codified from less formalized. pre-existing rules that were unversally known by particular groups or societies.

    It has long been speculated that ‘moral/ethical’ behavior (which can indeed be unwritten) long preceeded the formal institution of religion – and were no doubt an inherent, adaptive part of man’s social/gregarious nature that contributed greatly to his
    survival as a species.

    There is so much that has to happen at the unconscious, autonomic, developmental level before humans can even take a step or speak a word, that is should be presumed that many important predicates for behavior that follow biologically derived, developmental stages, also operate at the subliminal, unconscious level – whether we know what they are or not.

  • kingcranky

    Enroll in the military, then try and play the “conscientious objector” card when assigned overseas, see how successful you are.

    Do you think the “government” as the “conscience” of these misogynistic laws aimed at overruling a woman’s conscience?

  • Counterww

    Nothing to tax there are no profits made. Go pound. Sand with your stupid idea.

  • Counterww

    Baloney . Washington said in his farewell address quite the opposite in that we said government benefited from religious influence. You are off your rocker per silage, but that is par for the course for you.

  • ThomasBaum

    Are you saying that it is alright to have a conscience as long as you don’t use it?

    Or are you saying that it is alright to have a conscience in “some fields” but not in others?

    I don’t think of the government as anyone’s conscience.

    I didn’t enroll in the military, I was drafted, I also never applied for conscientious objector status but it was available and even in this “voluntary” force age, it should still be available, this is merely my opinion but why have a so-called “free country” if there is not even the illusion of freedom left.

    As someone has previously said, “If one exchanges their freedom for security, they will one day wake up with neither”.

    Freedom of conscience is one of the most basic freedoms and without it, we are nothing more than automatons of the state.

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