It is a significant and necessary piece in the mosaic of contemporary medicine. It plays a vital role in the thoughts and behavior of healthcare professionals, and it guides their ethical approach to the way they treat those entrusted to their care.
This understanding of the freedom of conscience dates back to the founding principles of our country. As Thomas Jefferson declared, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” And James Madison called conscience “the most sacred of all property.”
Within the healthcare realm, conscience has an even more ancient pedigree. Medicine is called a “profession” largely because of the Hippocratic Oath, traced to the fifth century BC. The Oath elevated the practice of medicine to a sacred calling where the physician was bound to satisfy divine obligation to reverence human life. And America’s respect for conscience has allowed the full application of the Hippocratic Oath to thrive.
Just as healthcare professionals and institutions seek to serve their patients, the freedom of conscience serves to protect not only the integrity of the professional but the ability of patients to access healthcare that unconditionally respects human life.
Historically, the Hippocratic Oath was not an imposition on patients but the acknowledgement of a life-affirming obligation for patients who were otherwise poor and vulnerable, a duty that was not previously embraced. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, who could hardly be considered a pro-life/pro-family advocate, explained that by the Oath, “for the first time in our tradition there was a complete separation between killing and curing,” so that physicians in at least one branch of medical practice “were to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of rank, age, or intellect….” “But,” Mead warned, “society always is attempting to make the physician into a killer.”1 Many would agree that Mead’s grim observation is particularly relevant today.
Many healthcare professionals have experienced a trend of increasing pressure to conform to more “socially accepted” beliefs within their own practice. Unfortunately, if the healthcare freedom of conscience is denied and the healing profession is compelled to become an industry hostile to human life, it will restrict the choices, health, and lives of patients—particularly the most vulnerable.
The good news is: Healthcare professionals are not alone. Just as they have the God-given right to carry out their work with a reverence for human life, procreation, and the image of God, there are many patients who want to choose a medical professional who shares these guiding values.
Every American Has the Right to Live and Work According to Their Conscience, Including Healthcare Professionals
Alliance Defending Freedom has prepared a legal manual to outline the legal landscape for healthcare freedom of conscience. Our assistance is available to aid health professionals, organizations, policy makers, and all Americans who wish to preserve this most sacred property of citizenship: the right of conscience.
Download this FREE resource to learn more about the rights of healthcare professionals, and if you or someone you know ever runs into a situation at work where the right to opt out of certain situations or procedures is taken away, don’t hesitate to call ADF at 1-800-TELL-ADF or contact us here on our website.
1. Psychiatry and Ethics (1972), Maurice Levine, M.D., George Braziller, pub., ISBN 0807606421 ISBN 9780807606421, pp. 324-325.