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Protecting religious freedom within medicine

Eric Patterson | Rights of conscience must extend to medical professionals and religious hospitals


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Protecting religious freedom within medicine
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On June 15, South Carolina became the third state to protect the religious freedom of medical professionals by passing the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act (known as the “Med Act”), which defends medical practitioners from being coerced to violate their sacred oath to “Do no harm.”

Sadly, egregious violations of conscience rights abound. One example is a nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center, whose objection to participation in abortions was widely known and appropriately documented. But she was manipulated under false pretenses into assisting in the operating room without the surgeon or staff informing her that she would be participating in an abortion until it was too late.

At its roots, the Med Act defends human dignity. Medical professionals swear by the ancient Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” Thus, they vow to give their best care to those entrusted to them. In addition to the dignity of the patient, the dignity of the practitioner is at stake. It is morally wrong to require doctors, nurses, or other healthcare staff to park their religiously informed convictions at the door before they walk in to work.

“As the right of conscience is fundamental,” the Med Act reads, “no medical practitioner, healthcare institution, or healthcare payer should be compelled to participate in or pay for any medical procedure or prescribe or pay for any such medication to which he, she or it objects on the basis of conscience.”

The Med Act protects four types of people and institutions. The first and most obvious are healthcare professionals—from nurses and doctors to medical students, mental health professionals, and medical scientists. These public servants should not be coerced to participate in procedures that they believe assault the human dignity of patients, such as abortion, euthanasia, transgender transition surgery, and some other elective procedures.

Second, the Med Act protects healthcare institutions, from faith-based inner-city clinics to Catholic and other religious hospitals. These institutions provide compassionate, life-affirming and life-saving services to those in need. The men and women who work in these institutions and the donors who sacrificially give to them should not be intimidated or coerced to act in ways contrary to the fundamental teachings of their religious traditions. This extends to accreditation, access to Medicare and other government funding streams for the needy, state licensing, or subtle ways that government bureaucrats could attack religious institutions.

The third group that needs protection is healthcare payers. It may not be possible to entirely protect taxpayers from supporting some procedures as their tax dollars wend through the complex U.S. healthcare system. Nonetheless, citizens and private insurance companies should be able to direct their monies toward healthcare systems that behave in accord with their fundamental values.

An authentic American pluralism champions the right of patients to choose practitioners who share their most important beliefs.

Finally, we need to protect the conscience rights of patients and their families. Parents, in particular, have a moral obligation to care for their children and protect them from radical ideologies of those who might try to capture their children and point them toward drugs, therapies, and radical procedures that might violate the family’s deepest convictions.

Some say it is enough to compel an objecting doctor to refer a child or woman to a sex transition surgeon or abortionist. But “referral” is not the opposite of “performance.” Referrals imply tacit approval. We must protect the conscience of medical practitioners who refuse to do these procedures as well as their right to refuse to provide referrals.

The authoritarian impulse of abortionists, euthanasians, and transgender activists is often hidden under the concept of “inclusivity.” This erroneous view of American pluralism demands that all healthcare professionals must be required to perform all procedures on demand.

This is just wrong.

An authentic American pluralism champions the right of patients to choose practitioners who share their most important beliefs. It also esteems a diverse medical workforce, including those who represent a variety of ethnic and religious communities.

The example of Dr. Regina Frost, a New York OB-GYN is a case in point. Dr. Frost is an African-American doctor who is also a Christian. In 2020, she publicly objected to a proposed New York law that would have forced her to perform abortions or strip her of her medical license. In Dr. Frost’s case, the tragedy for the women of New York is to lose an African-American female OB-GYN. Dr. Frost rightly reasoned, “I cannot take the life of a child in one room and guide another child into this world in the next.”

South Carolina’s Med Act, along with similar bills passed in Ohio and Arkansas in 2021, is an important start, but much work needs to be done to protect religious freedom in the areas of licensure, accreditation, education, and continuing education, so-called “best practices,” and standards of care. As Christian citizens, we must protect the conscience rights of these public servants.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is executive vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of 15 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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