Monday, August 09, 2004

Hostility toward religion in law and politics

Catholic hospitals and medical providers have become an integral part of the nation's health-care system, providing critical health-care services to the poor. As many as 1 in 5 Americans, regardless of religion, race, age, or ability to pay, receive health care from Catholic caregivers. More than 15 million emergency-room visits and 84 million outpatient visits occur in Catholic hospitals in a given year.

Even more critical to the mission of Catholic health care is its religious identity. Its service to the sick and dying in the community is based on core principles of faith — that it can heal the person by ministering to the body as well as the soul. So as part of its outreach to the sick, Catholic health care is careful not to provide or support services that are inconsistent with the Church's teachings — such as abortion, contraception, certain infertility treatments, and assisted suicide. As the Catholic Bishops' Conference has stated, "Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church."

In order to permit Catholic and other faith-based health-care providers to remain religious while serving critical public functions, state and federal legislators have often provided "conscience" protection that permits religious-based health-care providers to opt out of programs or treatment that they find objectionable. For example, even though they often treat patients receiving Medicare or Medicaid, religious-based hospitals are permitted by federal law not to provide abortion services or referrals.

It is this core exercise of religious conscience — and the government's accommodation of it — that the ABA finds so objectionable. Citing studies with titles such as "When Religion Compromises Women's Health Care: A Case Study of a Catholic Managed Health Care Organization," the ABA argues that the religious practices of Catholic health-care providers, both individual and institutional, deny needed health services and information to patients, especially women. Its singles out certain Catholic health care-providers, such as Fidelis Care New York, a Catholic health-care system that provides Medicaid services to the residents of 33 New York counties — services that might otherwise not be available were it not for the faith-based outreach. What crime has Fidelis committed that merits the attention of the nation's bar association? It refuses to provide certain "family planning services" to its patients or refer patients for such services — services that contravene the core teachings of the Catholic faith.

One might argue that this sort of ABA resolution has about as much to do with the mission of a national bar association as a resolution addressing the judicial-nomination process would have to do with the mission of the American Medical Association. But putting that aside, the substance of the ABA's proposal is nothing more than a full frontal assault on the core religious tenets of the Catholic Church. No one at the ABA seems to see the irony in the fact that a resolution seeking to override the exercise of religious conscience by thousands of Catholic health care providers is being proposed by a committee devoted to the protection of "individual rights and responsibilities." Apparently, the free exercise of religion is not an individual right protected by that particular committee.

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