WASHINGTON — No one is saying what President Obama and Cardinal Francis George talked about in their unannounced St. Patrick’s Day meeting.
But surely, health care must have been a topic of discussion.
Cardinal George is the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Both the U.S. bishops and Obama have had a lot to say about health care recently.
The U.S. bishops and Obama’s approaches have one key difference: The bishops support the right to life of all. Obama is pro-abortion.
The Obama administration wants Congress to sneak the president’s health-care plans through Congress in an end-run around opposition, The Washington Post reported March 18.
Obama himself set the priority in his Feb. 24 address to Congress, emphasizing “the crushing cost of health care.”
Even in the face of unemployment, failed businesses and foreclosed homes, he said, “We can no longer afford to put health-care reform on hold.”
Kathy Saile works for the U.S. bishops on domestic social issues. “For decades, the bishops have called for universal access to quality health care,” she said. “It is an essential protection for human life and dignity.”
But Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical pastor who is a member of Obama’s new Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, told Christian Broadcasting Network that making abortion provisions part of health-care reform will “kill health-care reform.”
Comments on Conscience
On March 17, Cardinal George issued a dire warning about the Obama administration’s plans to deny doctors conscientious objector rights. He said Obama’s plans “could be the first step in moving our country from democracy to despotism.”
On March 6, Obama moved to rescind the Bush administration’s protections for health-care centers and providers; those persons and institutions may have to provide services or refer patients for services they find objectionable on moral or religious grounds.
“Overturning conscience protection means ignoring freedom of religion under the law, as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” said John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association. “This would pressure doctors, nurses and health-care providers into greater participation in abortion and other things their conscience might oppose. This is a truly radical proposal, not the action of an administration seeking ‘common ground’ on abortion.”
The Department of Health and Human Services, which is implementing the change in conscience protection, is accepting public comment during a 30-day period before the new rules go into effect.
Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said that Catholics should contact the president and write to the Department of Health and Human Services to voice their support for conscience protection.
“If the Obama administration truly wants to reform health care and have Catholics as active partners in that effort, they need to uphold conscience protection and the rights of Catholic doctors and health-care providers,” said McQuade. “Coercing doctors to refer patients for abortion in violation of their religious beliefs is not good medicine.”
Brehany of the Catholic Medical Association agreed on the importance of providing health-care services to those in need. “But we need to ask how the problems within the health-care system are going to be addressed by this administration,” he said. “Having the federal government in control of the financing and determining which services are provided is not the answer.”
In “A Catholic Proposal for Health Care Renewal,” published in November 2008, the Catholic Medical Association advocated for individual ownership of health insurance, so that people could purchase “coverage that conforms to the dictates of their conscience.” Brehany said that the federal government should work with the states and private companies to provide more health insurance options for individuals and families, allowing them to choose between competing plans and join groups or associations that share their values.
Brehany maintained that, just as Americans should be able to choose medical coverage consistent with their morals and beliefs, physicians and institutions should also be protected from efforts to coerce them into referring women for abortions, prescribing emergency contraception, or providing other services that violate their religious convictions.
‘Not Vending Machines’
Some Catholics took a more positive view of Obama’s health-care reform initiatives. “We applaud the president’s commitment to achieving universal health coverage,” said Jennifer Goff, a spokeswoman for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “Catholic social teaching is clear that universal health care is a fundamental human right. As Catholics, we are called to defend human dignity and care for those who are sick and vulnerable.”
Goff pointed to the fact that 47 million Americans — many of them children — are without health insurance, calling this “a moral failure.” Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good believes that the government should guarantee that health care is universally available in America. “We want to make sure this is a bipartisan effort for the common good, a priority for all those in office, not just the president,” said Goff.
Nonetheless, William Toffler, professor of family medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University, is concerned about conscience protection. He said that at his institution even if a doctor does not perform or participate in abortion or physician-assisted suicide he or she is still required to refer patients for that service.
Toffler, who refuses to prescribe contraceptives or refer patients for abortion or assisted suicide, explained, “When we cooperate with an act that we find unethical or immoral, we have culpability; we are indirectly supporting and promoting that practice.”
“Doctors are not vending machines,” he said. “We’re not meant to be robots, simply dispensing whatever people want whenever they want it. We are informed by our consciences, and we should not be asked to violate that in order to practice medicine.”
Nicole Ficere Callahan writes
from Durham, North Carolina.