Monday, January 30, 2006

Hypocritical Oath


More than a dozen states are considering new laws to protect health workers who do not want to provide care that conflicts with their personal beliefs, a surge of legislation that reflects the intensifying tension between asserting individual religious values and defending patients' rights.

About half of the proposals would shield pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control and "morning-after" pills because they believe the drugs cause abortions. But many are far broader measures that would shelter a doctor, nurse, aide, technician or other employee who objects to any therapy. That might include in-vitro fertilization, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cells and perhaps even providing treatment to gays and lesbians.

"It's already a very hot issue," said Edward R. Martin Jr. of the Americans United for Life, who is advising legislators around the country pushing such bills. "I think it's going to get even hotter, for lots of reasons and in lots of places."

The flurry of political activity is being welcomed by conservative groups that consider it crucial to prevent health workers from being coerced into participating in care they find morally repugnant -- protecting their "right of conscience" or "right of refusal."

"This goes to the core of what it means to be an American," said David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. "Conscience is the most sacred of all property. Doctors, dentists, nurses and other health care workers should not be forced to violate their consciences."

The swell of propositions is raising alarm among advocates for abortion rights, family planning, AIDS prevention, the right to die, gays and lesbians, and others who see the push as the latest manifestation of the growing political power of social conservatives.

"This is a very significant threat to patients' rights in the United States," said Lois Uttley of the MergerWatch project, who is helping organize a conference in New York to plot a counterstrategy. "We need to protect the patient's right to use their own religious or ethical values to make medical decisions."

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