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Call To Reverse Sectarian Religious Beliefs On Reproductive, End-Of-Life Care

Armen Hareyan's picture

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice released new ethical guidelines entitled "In Good Conscience: Guidelines for the Ethical Provision of Health Care in a Pluralistic Society," seek to strike a balance between the beliefs and rights of providers and the beliefs and rights of patients.

Alarmed by the increasing imposition of sectarian religious beliefs on health care access - especially access to reproductive health and humane end-of-life care - for millions of Americans, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, representing mainstream denominations and faith traditions, is calling for all health care providers to implement the new guidelines.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is the only national interfaith organization dedicated to preserving reproductive choice and achieving reproductive justice. National religious and religiously affiliated organizations from 15 denominations and faith traditions are members of the Coalition; these include the Episcopal Church, three bodies of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, two agencies of the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism, and independent religious organizations such as Catholics for a Free Choice, Disciples for Choice, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

"A growing number of doctors, nurses, and pharmacies are refusing to provide, refer, or even tell their patients about care options that they feel are not in keeping with their own personal religious beliefs," stated Barbara Kavadias, Director of Field Services at the Religious Coalition and leader of the three-year project that created In Good Conscience. "Institutions are refusing to provide essential care, citing their religious commitments. In Good Conscience is grounded in long-standing religious and ethical traditions, and helps individuals, care providers, and institutions navigate the difficult and complex intersection between religion and medicine."

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"In Good Conscience is appearing now to answer the dangerous threat of a few religions wanting to speak for all religions, and wanting to impose their particular teachings on every health care institution and health care provider, and wanting to impose their beliefs on individuals seeking health care," said Reverend Dr. Larry Greenfield, Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches, Metro Chicago, who helped develop the Guidelines. "This is a statement about religion and health that stands up to that threat. And it is a statement that stands up for fundamental religious and democratic principles."

The new guidelines provide an alternative to sectarian restrictions imposed on health care, such as the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among others. As an increasing number of health care institutions fall under the control of religious organizations that restrict services based on their own religious beliefs, guidance is needed for providers and patients. For example, all Catholic hospitals, where 1 in 5 Americans receive their care, refuse to provide a range of reproductive and end-of-life service. The implications for patients are enormous: they are denied treatment or medication even when it is legal and they can pay for it. There are also implications for the doctors and nurses at such hospitals.

"When the religious directives of a sectarian hospital dictate the care that doctors can provide their patients, they tie the hands of doctors - we can no longer use our training and professional medical judgment to take the best care of our patients," said Dr. Debra Stulberg, a family physician in Chicago, who was on an interfaith working group that drafted the guidelines. "When I was a resident, my hospital was acquired by a large sectarian hospital system. All doctors and nurses had to practice within the directives of the church, which meant we could not provide essential services such as routine birth control and voluntary sterilization. In caring for patients at the end of life, our treatment options were subject to approval of the church and even patients with life-threatening pregnancy complications might not be provided standard-of-care treatment."

Individual doctors, pharmacists, and nurses are also exercising a "religious or moral objection," refusing to provide essential services and often leaving patients without other options. A University of Chicago study of physicians' attitudes correlated with religion recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that:

-- 14% of physicians (1 out of 7) surveyed said it is acceptable to withhold medical options they personally find morally objectionable. That means over 40 million Americans are cared for by doctors who do not feel obligated to disclose information about available treatments, such as abortion, that they find objectionable

-- 29% of physicians (nearly 1 in 3) would not refer a patient for a procedure to which they personally object.