This post has been inspired by the recent spate of holier-than-thou-ness of medical workers who deny their services to clients that fail to live up to their personal religious expectations. In particular, I’ve just come across this article, which has my hackles good and raised. This trend has been has been underway for some time now (certainly more than a year, though I’m not sure when it actually started), and I have regularly voiced my opposition to it, but I’d like to lay my thoughts out here in what will surely fail to be a concise manner.
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I simply do not understand why so many people are this willing to accept it when religious healthcare organizations* deny reproductive health services to people for moral reasons. This is patently hypocritical. If a Catholic ER patient died on the operating table from exsanguination because a Jehovah’s Witness surgeon refused to perform or allow a blood transfusion, society would not stand for it. We would rightly view it as a serious moral transgression, and we might very plausibly charge this doctor with homicide. How much worse would it be if the order never to transfuse came instead from a hospital administrator? It is not hyperbole to suggest that the broader consequences of denying someone access to medical care over religious objections are no less severe than the hypothetical case I’ve provided. As such, it is deeply offensive when doctors and pharmacists use their own personal faith to justify denying care to their patients. This is no less true even if those patients happen to share the healthcare non-provider’s religion; it is not up to anyone else to determine what your personal religious beliefs are, even if that person is your very own priest. (Even though official Catholic doctrine forbids birth control, for example, the vast majority of Catholics support its use or use it themselves.) No one has the moral authority to unilaterally dictate how you live your life as long as you conduct yourself within the boundaries of the laws of a civil society. So why is it okay for birth control and other reproductive services (and now AIDS medicine) to be denied when the attempt to deny other forms of life-saving care would be sharply condemned? Are we to accept the premise that religious devotion permits the denial of quality-of-life care but not life-saving care? Given the ultimate fate a person with untreated AIDS is sure to face, this answer is entirely insufficient.
The primary moral imperative, to consider the wellbeing of others instead of merely yourself, dictates that you are not permitted to inflict your own prohibitions on an unwilling populace without adequate justification. In this case, no such justification can possibly exist; no amount of rationalization is sufficient to merit the imposition of one’s religion on another. If we are to live in a society where you can dictate my behavior, then it must also be a society where I can also dictate yours, and the end result of this is nothing short of perpetual misery. The denial of care to someone in need may very well mean the ruination of that person’s life—quite possibly even their death—and by supporting this denial, one must also accept responsibility for all of the negative consequences that follow. Ask yourself if this world, where a hostile group has physical control over your body, would be the kind of world you’d wish to live in. I would humbly suggest that anyone who finds this idea tenable check themselves into a mental institution with all due haste.
Christianity is said to be based on the idea of forgiveness. A believer’s sins may be forgiven through faith in Christ, even if the specific avenues of this forgiveness vary from sect to sect. If you are forced to administer healthcare that you feel is immoral, you may beg the forgiveness of your god afterwards, and all will be right again (“pray like this, and all is mended…”). Those whose lives are directly impacted by the unrighteous imposition of others’ doctrinal mandates often have no such recourse. I speak in terms of Christianity not because it is only this religion that punishes others for their nonbelief—it unquestionably is not, and clearly not every Christian (nor even a majority) would condone this practice. No, I reference Christianity merely because the Western world is predominantly Christian, so it is typically a Christian faith that is cited in defense of this discrimination.
Before I close, I must make a confession. In my second paragraph, I told a lie. Yes, I have borne false witness, and now I seek forgiveness. You see, I do understand why this meme of alleged moral objection has propagated. It persists because those who are victimized by this development are the socially disadvantaged. For the wealthy, it may very well be a trivial inconvenience to seek alternatives elsewhere, even out-of-state (or country) if necessary. For the other half, however, there is no escape. Those who lack social capital are unable to effect change when they cannot sway the majority to their aid. It is far too easy to express support for the rights of the disadvantaged without actually taking steps to support them. I think—I hope!—the majority of believers would never dream of personally denying these services to those in need if they were in the non-providers’ shoes, but by not speaking out against this practice, they lend implicit support to it. This emboldens the deniers, giving them free rein to claim, “Aha! But I am supported by my religious brethren! See, look how none condemn me for my actions! Look how my fellow believers support my bravery!” This tacit support must be withdrawn, and these people must be made to understand, in no uncertain terms, that if they are not willing to fulfill the demands of their profession, they must seek work elsewhere. If you see this kind of injustice, speak out about it! Do not remain silent while the rights of the few are disregarded by a shortsighted majority.
*These organizations appear to be predominantly but certainly not exclusively Catholic. To be honest, the very notion of a religious medical institution shouldn’t even be comprehensible. Religion is based on faith while healthcare is based on empirical evidence. These two ideas are not compatible.