Conscience Clause Part II

I grew up on tales of civil disobedience, I absorbed the belief that we answer to a higher standard than man’s law. I admired the Freedom Riders and Conscientious Objectors. They put their comfort, and sometimes their lives on the line.

Everything that goes around comes around. While there are many people who will follow their principles no matter what the cost, there are those who use conscience as a justification for pushing their standards on others. They feel pure, the people they are trusted to serve are subject to their judgment and bear the consequences.

The Bush administration, with its fondness for vague piety, gave cover to any pharmacist or health care provider who decided to refuse service, as long as they claimed religion. Oh, excuse me–I meant Faith. Religion is too specific, let’s not be clear when we can be evasive.

I’ve been watching this court case move slowly through the system. A nurse is being sued because she pulled out a patient’s intrauterine device without permission, and then lectured her. An IUD prevents fertilization and alters the uterine lining to make it less receptive to sperm and implantation. This is what some define as abortion. In fact, some believe that the birth control pill is abortion, and there are legal strategies in progress to separate contraception from other health care and remove it from insurance coverage.

The Freedom Riders faced dogs and fire hoses, the Conscientious Objectors went to prison or served in the hardest unwanted jobs. They stood up to power and faced the consequences. This new definition of conscience is all about the person in power exercising their conscience at the expense of the person who trusts them to provide a skilled service. Unlike the Freedom Riders and the C.O.’s, the providers are well protected by the law. But this nurse may have pushed it too far.

She could have told her employer at hire that she had a list of birth control methods she personally found unacceptable, and would not cooperate in providing care that violated her standards. She could have refused to see the patient with the IUD, and claimed conscience and let another nurse or doctor see her. She’ll have a chance now to say whether she was acting on principle, or was just clumsy. Here’s some testimony…

“[Nurse] Olona then stated, ‘having the IUD come out was a good thing.’ She asked (the plaintiff) if she wanted to hear her ‘take’ on the situation. Without receiving a response, Defendant Olona stated, ‘I personally do not like IUDs. I feel they are a type of abortion. I don’t know how you feel about abortion, but I am against them. What the IUD does is take the fertilized egg and pushes it out of the uterus.’
“Defendant Olona stated, ‘Everyone in the office always laughs and tells me I pull these out on purpose because I am against them, but it’s not true, they accidentally come out when I tug.’

The thing about conscience is that good people can disagree in important matters. I do think that medical people have a right and necessity to follow their conscience, but they have an obligation to be truthful to their patients. They do not have a right to impose their beliefs on people who are trusting them to provide care. If they need to opt out, they should make sure the patient has an alternative. Because she has a conscience too. And it’s her life and body on the line. Doctors and nurses have no right to sabotage medical procedures from some notion that they know better than the patient.

UPDATE: Apparently the case was settled out of court. Darn. I was wondering what Nurse Olona, (or Physician’s Assistant Olona in some news accounts) would have said with her hand on the Bible.

Conscience Clause

There’s a small storm in the blogosphere over this incident…

Keith Bardwell, a white justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish in the southeastern part of the state, refused to issue a marriage license earlier this month to Beth Humphrey, who is white, and Terence McKay, who is black. His refusal has prompted calls for an investigation or resignation from civil and constitutional rights groups and the state’s Legislative Black Caucus.

It seems like a throwback to a time when citizens could be denied basic rights because of the color of their skin. It’s somewhat of a political embarrassment to Louisiana, but the justice, Keith Bardwell, seems bewildered by all the controversy. He’s not a racist. He was just trying to stop two young people from making a bad decision.

I think that Bardwell considers interracial marriage to be contrary to God’s plan, but he’s not saying that. He’s just maintaining that he did nothing wrong.

Over the past decade, pharmacists have followed their personal inclinations and refused to fill prescriptions for birth control pills or emergency contraceptives. I’m struck by the similarity in tone and reasoning. Judge Bardwell can’t understand why he is being persecuted for trying to do the right thing…

“Everybody hates me,” he tells reporters. “Really. I don’t know why. I treat people, I figure, equal. I have one problem with mixed marriages and that is the offspring.”

He’s just thinking of the children…

Bardwell says his concern is with the impact that an interracial marriage has on children. He says he has married white couples and black couples, but refers interracial couples to another JP.

They can get what they want somewhere else, so what’s the problem?

The problem, of course, is disrespecting the right of adult citizens to make their own decisions in personal matters. The problem is in failing his duty of performing a legal marriage. The problem is that the Judge can congratulate himself on his high moral standards– he says he has always refused to marry interracial couples, and until now, didn’t face any consequences at all. Two people, on what should have been their wedding day, were mortally insulted. Two innocent people are in the center of a controversy they never asked for. The Judge might lose his job, but there will be plenty who will welcome him with open arms.

There are too many people who see conscience as staying pure at the expense of those they are trusted to serve. Who disrespect the agency of others. Who take it on themselves to make a moral decision while someone else takes the consequences.

Racism is certainly the most glaring factor here. But in the Judge’s statements I hear an echo of those who want to claim power over other people’s choices.

Louisiana’s racist past is a political liability when so nakedly apparent. But under the surface, there are many quiet supporters of the Judge.

Almost every politician in Louisiana including Republican Governor Bobby Jindal and Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La. have denounced Judge Bardwell.
Almost… Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter who is running for re-election has been deafeningly quiet about the incident.

The Judge is a picture of injured innocence. He’ll stand on what he believes is right. His conscience is clean before God. He doesn’t understand why he is facing so much anger from the people he hurt.