Religious-employee opt-out rights in health care

This topic, which I mentioned in passing last week, is back in the news with the announcement of an executive order by President Bush extending and entrenching the asserted right of hospital, clinic and pharmacy employees to defy their supervisors and disrupt the operation of their workplaces by announcing that they will not dispense prescriptions or participate in medical procedures that violate their religious beliefs.  At NRO’s “Corner”, we are instructed by Tyranny of Reason author Yuval Levin that it’s totally illegitimate to use quote-marks around the word “conscience”, as if to suggest that the employees in question could have spared themselves a crisis of conscience by not accepting jobs that might present them with such duties in the first place. Levin also seems to find it illegitimate for the New York Times’s story to mention the Roman Catholic hierarchy in tones that suggest that the issue has anything to do with churches’ influence on public policy. Speaking of which, a post by Radley Balko at Reason “Hit and Run” reminds me just how broad the Vatican’s opposition to assisted reproductive technology is: I mentioned in vitro fertilization for unmarried women last time, but of course the Church prohibits the use of in vitro techniques for married couples as well.

The rules are likely to cause trouble — maybe even are intended to cause trouble — for clinics offering in vitro and other assisted reproductive services. And yet the Bush people would be unlikely to succeed in mustering the votes for an outright ban on such services, no matter how much encouragement they got from the Corner or Levin’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.

P.S. Some further thoughts from Rick Garnett at Prawfsblawg on the question — which seems in some ways the cutting edge of contention — of whether backers of the measure should be conceded the positively-charged word conscience without the distancing or irony of quotation marks. In part this is a battle over who gets to use language with favorable connotations, but it is also influenced by the sense that there’s a time and place for everything, even crises of conscience, and that the time to announce one’s conscientious objections to warmaking, if one doesn’t want people to start using air quotes about them, is before one is shipped to the battlefield.

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
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