An Ethical Defense of Conscience Clauses


Last week, the Obama administration revised controversial government regulations intended to protect the conscience rights of medical professionals. Put into place by the Bush administration, these conscience rules had allowed health care workers to opt out of performing medical interventions that they believe are morally objectionable. The new rules limit the medical procedures what medical personnel can refuse to perform only to abortion and to sterilization and not to providing contraception.

Moreover, the Obama administration has limited conscience protection only to laws that protect health care workers from performing medical interventions that violate their beliefs. It invalidated laws that had protected health care workers from serving patients who may have performed or are performing actions that the health care providers find morally objectionable. Concretely, now, a pharmacist cannot use conscience laws to refuse to provide birth control to an unmarried individual.

The Catholic Church is a stalwart defender of conscience. As the Second Vatican Council taught: “[The human person] must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience.” [1] This right to act according to one’s conscience arises from the dignity of the human person who is created to seek the truth in freedom. Thus, our society has an obligation to protect the right of an individual to act according to his conscience that flows from its duty to protect the dignity of the human person. This right has to include the corollary right to refuse to cooperate with another’s acts that one has judged to be evil because we are responsible for all our acts include those acts that can be used as means to achieve evil ends.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has been resolute in its defense of the conscientious objector: “Unjust laws pose dramatic problems of conscience for morally upright people: when they are called to cooperate in morally evil acts they must refuse. Besides being a moral duty, such a refusal is also a basic human right which, precisely as such, civil law itself is obliged to recognize and to protect. ‘Those who have recourse to conscientious objection must be protected not only from legal penalties but also from any negative effects on the legal, disciplinary, financial and professional plane’.” [2]

Significantly, even secular scholars defend the legitimacy of conscience clauses in a liberal society. As John Rawls, the foremost proponent of liberal political theory in the twentieth century, has acknowledged, the freedom to engage in civil disobedience and conscientious refusal is a fundamental pillar of a liberal democracy. [3] It protects the minority against the power of the majority. Especially in light of the medical abuses in government sponsored research programs in Nazi Germany, health care providers must be free to object to even legally-sanctioned medical procedures. To deny them this liberty is to undermine their autonomy to live and to practice their profession according to the dictates of their consciences.

In the end, conscience clauses are essential pillars of a just society. It is morally troubling that the Obama administration is working to weaken the ethical foundations of our society.

Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austiaco, O.P.


[1] Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, no. 3. The citation is from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Concilliar Documents, pp. 801-802.
[2] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 399. Citing Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, no. 73. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2242.
[3] For his defense of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal, see Rawl’s seminal work, Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 363-391.

(© 2011 Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austiaco, O.P.)


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