“First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me.” ~ Pastor Martin Niemoeller *
President-elect Barak Obama has promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) as his first act after taking office. This benign-sounding law would eliminate virtually every law, legal precedent and rule enacted in the last 35 years to regulate abortion in the United States. Although not widely reported, FOCA would also trump conscience rights for healthcare providers in the area of abortion. The seeds for this draconian measure were planted years ago and, if signed, FOCA will set a precedent with far-reaching consequences.
First, a concerted effort started several years ago by abortion supporters to force pharmacists to supply Plan B (the “morning after pill”) without a prescription and over some pharmacists’ moral objections to drugs that can cause an abortion. Just like the initial roundup of communists in Pastor Niemoller’s quote, there were few public objections except, of course, from the pro-life community. Some states even enacted laws to force Catholic hospitals to supply Plan B to rape victims over their objections.
But the agenda was always larger than just the pharmacists and Plan B.
This was made clear when the Bush administration announced stronger protections for health care providers’ conscience rights, protecting them from workplace discrimination. The reaction was immediate: A December 24 editorial in the St Louis Post-Dispatch stated, “Doctors, nurses and pharmacists choose professions that put patients’ rights first. If they foresee that priority becoming problematic for them, they should choose another profession.” (emphasis added) But if the conscience rights line cannot be drawn at the easily understandable, scientific fact of abortion, what happens when the discussion turns to euthanasia and the whole area of end-of-life care?
Barbara Coombs Lee, one of the euthanasia supporters behind Oregon’s law legalizing assisted suicide, exposed the radical agenda behind the war on conscience rights when she wrote in January “Now comes a federal rule encouraging workers to exercise their idiosyncratic convictions at the expense of patient care. Employees who, for example, might exalt suffering, or disapprove of discontinuing feeding tubes or respiratory support have license under this rule to refuse to deliver or support any treatment or procedure.” Apparently Lee also believes that healthcare providers who refuse to participate in life-ending decisions because of their moral convictions should choose another profession.
And the proposed destruction of conscience rights for health care providers is not a peculiarly American issue. For example, earlier this month, UK ethicist Baroness Mary Warnock said that doctors who refuse to cooperate in assisted suicide are “genuinely wicked.”
But by eliminating conscience rights for health care providers who adhere to traditional medical ethics, we will effectively eliminate future as well as present ethical health care providers from the health care system. And with a healthcare system solely populated with healthcare providers who are comfortable with ending life, will medical ethics devolve even further into mere issues of legality and finances rather than principles?
Thus, Pastor Neimoller’s wisdom about the consequences of silence comes to its logical end with this campaign to end conscience rights: First they came for the pharmacists, then the nurses, then the doctors. And in the end, without this thin white line of ethical caregivers who refuse to deliberately end lives, there is nothing standing in the way of a conscienceless healthcare system terminating any of us at any age and with any unfortunate condition.
This is not a mere unintended consequence and we remain silent at our own peril.
* Lutheran theologian and pastor who opposed the Nazis.
Nancy Valko is president of Missouri Nurses for Life and a spokeswoman for the National Association of Pro-life Nurses.