Louis Brown

Religious freedom, conscience protection and the Culture of Life in health care suffer their greatest assault in American history. If these attacks on religious freedom and conscience protection are successful, Catholic health care will be destroyed. Without robust opposition to these attacks, the pro-life movement in America will be set back for generations. Right now, Catholic medical professionals and all who support the Culture of Life must do all they can to oppose these attacks and to vigorously defend Christ-centered, patient-centered, pro-life health care.

While the assault on religious freedom and the right of conscience in health care is dynamic and has been a reality for many years, this assault could culminate in an unimaginable reality for Catholic doctors, nurses, counselors, medical students, and other health care workers within the next year.

Already, Catholic students studying in medical fields are directly or indirectly persecuted by professors, college administrators, and classmates who believe these students should place their moral or religious convictions aside. Over the last several years, I have spoken with students who have experienced hostility or coercion because of their Catholic faith. This is happening in liberal and conservative states, from the East Coast to the Midwest to the West Coast. This reality will only get worse for Catholic students in medical programs if the current trends in health care are not reversed.

Many Catholic medical professionals as well as Catholic hospitals are tragically experiencing the full force of this assault on conscience and religious freedom. Just days ago, we learned of an Oregon physician’s assistant who spoke out about the Catholic medical clinic that violated her religious freedom because she refused to prescribe emergency contraception and would not refer patients for it. This case is similar to the 2019 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) enforcement action against a Vermont medical center for coercing a nurse into participating in an abortion. For many Catholic physicians, nurses, and medical students, “normal” is a climate of fear, coercion, and anxiety about the loss of professional advancement due to their Catholic faith. This hostility towards Catholic health care professionals was more fully exposed by a January 2020 working group report suggesting that a viable option for the University of California health system would be unaffiliating with Catholic hospital systems because of Catholic teaching.

The present attacks on religious freedom and Catholic health care are even more dire because of the political storm that is coming. Currently, there is significant support in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and segments of the broader public for a government takeover of health care (e.g. “Medicare for All” or a “Public Option”). These proposals for a government health care takeover seek to establish a federal abortion mandate, abolish the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on public funding of abortion, shred current federal conscience and religious freedom protections, and coerce medical professionals and health care entities into performing services that violate their moral and religious convictions. If these health care policies go into effect in a health care climate already hostile towards the sanctity of life and religious freedom, it is impossible to see how faithfully Catholic health care can survive.

While some federal and state laws provide protection for the right of conscience for medical professionals and students, hospitals, and health care entities, most of these laws are insufficient because they fail to give medical professionals the ability to vindicate their rights by filing a lawsuit in federal or state court. Yes, the Trump Administration and HHS has done amazing work to protect conscience and religious freedom. However, a new presidential administration opposed to life and religious liberty could radically rollback these gains.

As we enter fall of 2020 and look ahead to 2021, Catholic doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, medical students, health policy experts, lawyers, and health care entrepreneurs as well as the laity, clergy, and bishops must act now to defend religious freedom. The CMA and the Christ Medicus Foundation are working together with other allies to build robust public support nationally and at the state level for the rights of conscience and religious freedom in health care. We need your prayers, your support, and your participation. Please go to www.christmedicus.org or www.religiousfreedomandhealthcare.org and get more involved with this movement. 

St. John Paul II taught us that the right to health and so many other rights are false and illusory if the right to life is not defended with maximum determination. Without religious freedom, we are not fully free to love and defend all life. For love of God and neighbor, we must protect life through defending our religious freedom to care for and heal God’s people.

Louis Brown is the executive director of the Christ Medicus Foundation. An attorney, he formerly served at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and on Capitol Hill as a Congressional staffer to a Member of Congress.