A medical doctor presented this testimony last Friday to the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska legislature. A key point here, made by others elsewhere (e.g., John Patrick, M.D.) is that no society should want medical care professionals to violate their consciences–would you be happy to find out that your primary care physician from time to time violated his own conscience? Would you feel comfortable putting your life or the life of your loved ones in his hands? Moral integrity requires respect for conscience. It’s a shame we have to pass laws to protect consciences. The testimony:

Testimony of Clyde R. Meckel, MD to Judiciary Committee, LB564 – Health Care Freedom of Conscience Act, March 1, 2013

Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of LB564- the Health Care Freedom of Conscience Act.  The purpose of this bill is to respect and protect the fundamental right of conscience of licensed individuals who provide health care. This is a critical matter of protecting one of our most fundamental liberties.

Our nation has long upheld the protection of individual conscience from governmental coercion. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The right of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit.”

In a letter to the Quakers, George Washington asserted that government was instituted, among other purposes, “to protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression.”  He added, “…it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to [the conscientious scruples of all men], as a due regard to the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify and permit.”

The most common application of the right of conscience is the right to refrain from taking human life. This right has been protected in the arena of compulsory military service, as well as those of abortion, assisted suicide and capital punishment.

Liberals and conservatives alike agree that right of conscience exists, regardless of whether they sympathize with an objector’s particular stance. Right of conscience protects those who dissent from a norm or prevailing standard, and it applies when a cogent argument can be made that a grave wrong is being done.

The primary battlefield in which conscience rights are seriously threatened today is our health care system. More than ever, in this era of big business and big government medicine, health care needs conscience-driven doctors, nurses and other providers. Patients want compassionate, competent and conscientious care from providers, that is, from those who have moral integrity.  That very integrity is vanquished when physicians and other providers are forced to violate their own conscience.

Medicine certainly requires technical competence, but it is fundamentally a moral activity, since an essential part of its practice is helping patients decide what they ought to do in particular situations.  The physician-patient relationship is a covenantal one requiring trust that the physician is acting on the patient’s behalf.  I hope none of us here will end up in a critical situation being cared for by a deconstructed physician or other provider who has learned to check his or her conscience at the door when arriving to work each day.

It is therefore critical that physicians and other health care workers be protected from having their integrity compromised by being compelled into acting against their consciences by patients, health systems or government agencies.

Americans enjoy constitutional protection to make their own decisions about the issues surrounding personhood and the mystery of human life, and this should logically extend to health care professionals in the context of their work.  Our state constitution states that interference with rights of conscience is not to be permitted, and LB564 provides statutory protection of these rights for licensed health care providers.