Right of Conscience Rule and a Slippery Slope

Do you know the moral and ethical values of your physician? If you think it doesn’t matter, think again.

This week, the “Right of Conscience” rule became reality, courtesy of the outgoing Bush administration.

The rule allows health care workers–including doctors, nurses, office workers, maintenance staff, pharmacists, etc.–to refuse not only to perform procedures, but to dispense information, offer referrals, or participate in any way in procedures or issues that would conflict with their moral beliefs.

Designed to protect the rights of health care workers, the vaguely worded rule puts patients’ rights to quality health care in serious jeopardy. While it is likely that the Bush administration saw this as an abortion issue, the “right of conscience” could be interpreted to mean objections to stem-cell research, contraception, end-of-life issues, powerful prescription medications … there is no end to the potential fallout.

It is not a huge leap to imagine a doctor refusing to inform homosexuals about AIDS treatment. What if the cure to type 1 diabetes should be found in embryonic stem cell research–and your doctor doesn’t tell you? What your doctor doesn’t tell you most definitely can hurt you.

If the physician you count on is under no obligation to inform you of his moral objections, how are you to know that you are receiving all the information you need?

The doctor-patient relationship depends upon on mutual trust. We must feel confident that our physicians are putting our health first, not passing judgement. Likewise, doctors cannot provide us with a proper diagnosis if we keep information from them. If we allow our fear of moral judgement to cause us to withhold vital information, the health consequences could be disastrous.

While health care professionals certainly have a right not to participate in objectionable procedures, “conscience” is a broad term. Unless physicians are willing to publicly post a list of their moral objections, patients’ rights may once again be left out of the health care equation.

We must appeal to the Obama administration to tackle this rule and secure the rights of patients.


Nicky M.
Nicky M9 years ago

This is very worrying news, especially given the number of fanatical Christians who love to impose their belief system on others!

Ann Pietrangelo
Ann Pietrangelo9 years ago

In reply to Heather's comment:

President Obama openly criticized the rule when it was proposed. However, as I understand it, he can't reverse it with the swipe of a pen. Because the law has already passed, he needs the approval of Congress. We all know what a slow process that can be. With the economy taking top billing on the agenda, I do not believe change will come swiftly.

The rule is written is such a way as to be a threat to patient rights. For all our sakes, it must be addressed -- along with major health care reform -- very soon. I, for one, will be watching and waiting for a glimmer of the change we seek.

Heather H.
Heather H9 years ago

Ann, what are the prospects for reversal by the Obama administration?

Adriaan Vanderzwan

PHYSICIANS all take an oath in order to better protect and serve US, not to uphold their moral judgements.

Lisa E.
Lisa Emrich9 years ago

When I first heard of this proposal (before it became reality), I had a hard time believing that it would truly get off the ground.

I'm hoping now that it is just one of several policies which are reversed by the new Administration. In my opinion, if someone were not willing to separate their personal convictions from their professional responsibilities to serve the patient without judgement, then perhaps medicine and health is not the field to go into.

Thank you for highlighting this policy and helping to advocate for patients' rights.