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The war against Catholic doctors

Assume for a moment that you’re a doctor who practices in accord with Catholic moral teaching, but you live in a jurisdiction in which euthanasia is legal. As wrong as that is, you take comfort that you can still practice medicine in comportment with your religious beliefs.

Wesley J. Smith

Then, a patient with cancer asks to be euthanized. You kindly tell her that you can’t do that, but you promise to bring all of your education, experience, and ability in the service of her care and the easing of her suffering. Then you receive a letter from the medical licensing authority. Your patient filed a complaint against you for refusing her human right to death with dignity. You are bluntly informed that you violated your duty as a doctor and are ordered to appear before the disciplinary board to show cause why your license shouldn’t be suspended.

If you think that could never happen, think again. The ethics of medicine are changing radically from a professional model epitomized by the Hippocratic Oath to a “patient’s rights” model in which doctors are reduced to “service providers” bound to fulfill every legal, requested medical procedure — no conscience allowed. Doctors already face such stark circumstances. The law of Victoria, Australia, for example, requires every doctor who is asked for an abortion to terminate the pregnancy or refer to a doctor who will.

Assisted suicide is legal in Vermont. The state recently interpreted a law requiring physicians to counsel terminally ill patients about all palliative care options to include assisted suicide in those discussions. There is a lawsuit to protect physicians’ conscience rights, but a positive outcome is far but certain.

Washington state requires all pharmacies to dispense all legal medications and drugs. While exceptions are made for business reasons, such as lack of demand, no conscience exemptions are permitted. Stormans Inc., a small pharmacy company, sued to be exempted from the regulation and from dispensing the “morning after pill” based on the owners’ religious beliefs. Stormans won in trial court, but that was overturned by a federal appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused a hearing, and now the owners are in a real ethical fix.

The ACLU has sued Catholic hospitals in several states for refusing to perform abortions and sterilizations. So far, those cases have failed. But expect the litigation to continue. If Catholic health institutions are ever forced by law to break Catholic moral teaching, such a ruling could eventually apply to euthanasia where it is legal.

Canada recently legalized lethal injection euthanasia across the nation. What about doctors who, as in my hypothetical above, object on religious grounds to killing a patient? Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that matters of religious conscience should be left to the medical colleges (akin to U.S. licensing state medical associations). Rather than protecting their religiously objecting colleagues, the various colleges adopted euthanize-or-refer ethics rules — even though Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly states that “everyone has a right to freedom of conscience and religion.”

The Saskatchewan College went even further, requiring the dissenting physician to do the deed personally if no other doctor can be found, “even in circumstances where the provision of health services conflicts with physicians’ deeply held and considered moral or religious beliefs.” In other words, the ethics opinion could force doctors to kill even if she believes the act would be a mortal sin.

The drive to destroy physicians’ conscience rights is accelerating. An article in Practical Ethics, a bioethics journal published by Oxford University, argued that doctors should not only be required to refer — and therefore be complicit in killing — if they have a religious or conscience objection, but that they should be required to perform community service “to compensate society” for the doctor’s “failure to fulfill their professional obligations.” The article suggests forcing all medical students to perform such lethal actions as part of their training, regardless of their conscience beliefs. Such a rule would preclude faithful Catholics and other religious believers from becoming doctors, which of course, is the entire point.

Assisted suicide laws in the U.S. currently protect doctors’ consciences, with the exception of Vermont. But those protections were only included as a political expedient to achieve passage. Should assisted suicide becomes more popularly accepted, I believe these protections will be revoked. If I’m right, the time is coming when faithful Catholic doctors are forced to choose between their profession and acting in accord with their religious beliefs. There’s a word for that: “tyranny.”

WESLEY J. SMITH is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant for the Patients’ Rights Council. His latest book is Culture of Death: The Age of ‘Do Harm’ Medicine.