Conscience is the judgment or intuition that allows human beings to distinguish right from wrong, and they are affected by social norms, principles, and religious beliefs acquired throughout a person’s lifetime. In 1973, Congress enacted conscience clauses to protect medical professionals after the Roe v. Wade decision, and since then, several iterations have surfaced to protect healthcare providers who object to birth control, stem cell research, sterilization such as vasectomies or hysterectomies, and any legal medical procedure that goes against religious dogma. There has always been fear that doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and first responders would use conscience clause protection to refuse medical care based on bigotry, and according to a lawsuit in New Jersey, those fears are not unfounded.
A gay and HIV-positive man is suing a New Jersey Catholic hospital for denying him his HIV medicine for “going against god’s will.” The court complaint says the hospital did not honor the man’s request for lifesaving medication and denied visitation rights to his sister. The hospital, Trinitas Regional Medical Center’s “Reverance for Life” policy is to “Recognize and respect the dignity and value of life in every stage and condition,” and its mission is providing “excellent, compassionate healthcare to the people and communities we serve, including those among us who are poor and vulnerable;” unless they are gay.
The man reported in his complaint that a doctor on duty asked Joao Simoes how he got HIV, and he told her “from unprotected sex.” The doctor, Susan V. Borga, closed Simoes’ medical file and asked “Is that from sex with men,” and after responding in the affirmative, she exited the room and it took three days before the hospital allowed Mr. Simoes to phone his personal physician for help getting his medication. Simoes’ doctor informed him he had already spoken to Borga and told her Mr. Simoes needed his medicine and she responded, ”You must be gay, too, if you’re his doctor,” and said “This is what he gets for going against God’s will” and hung up the phone. Simoes only got his medicine after the hospital finally allowed his sister to visit, and only because he witnessed her deliver it to the nurses’ station. The man is seeking punitive damages for discrimination and did not name Borga as a defendant in the complaint.
The decision to withhold medical treatment was not a conscience problem, it was pure bigotry against gays based on a couple of verses in the Christian bible, and it was tantamount to a judge, jury, and executioner meting out punishment for “going against god’s will.” Punishing gays is not a new phenomenon and last week, a preacher in Kansas argued that the U.S. government should “put gay people to death” comparing gays to pedophiles and polygamists. Curtis Knapp, a Baptist preacher said, “We punish pedophilia and we punish incest. It’s only homosexuality that is lifted out as an exemption.” When asked if people should go out and start killing gays, Knapp replied, “No, I’m saying the government should, they won’t, but they should.”
The hatred toward the gay community is not based on any laws or to protect victims, and allowing healthcare providers to withhold treatment is the dreaded death panels Sarah Palin preached about during the healthcare reform debate. In the case of the HIV-positive man in New Jersey, the panel was a doctor with a bible and it is frightening to think her hatred for homosexuals superseded her oath to heal and care for the sick. Perhaps if she had told the man her conscience would not allow her to administer lifesaving medicine and passed the patient to a real healer it would be different, but she was punishing the man for “going against god’s will” and felt comfortable telling another doctor that was her reason for withholding treatment.
The recent attempt to withhold contraception by Republicans based on moral or religious conscience grounds is further proof that Americans are being subjected to the Christian version of Sharia Law, and it portends danger for minorities, women, and gays throughout America. How long until a Mormon first responder claims resuscitating an African American accident victim goes against his moral conviction that Blacks are cursed by god, or a pharmacist refuses to dispense lifesaving medicine to a pregnant woman because they think they are seeking to abort their pregnancy? Conscience clauses are just legal cover for healthcare providers to administer biblical justice with impunity, and Republicans took it a step farther during the Blunt amendment debate by adding moral conscience to religious objections and it implies that bigotry now qualifies as a legitimate reason to withhold medical treatment whether it is birth control, CPR or lifesaving HIV medicine.
Regardless of how a doctor, nurse, pharmacist or first responder feels about homosexuality, or African Americans, or pregnant women, their religious beliefs or bigotry does not give them the right to hand down a death sentence. In March, Republicans attempted to insert a broad religious exemption into the mandate that requires most employers and health insurance companies to provide contraception coverage, and their argument was that “It’s a moral and religious issue” according to Orin Hatch (R-UT, Mormon), and Bishop William Lori, chair of USCCB’s religious liberty committee said, “We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored.” However, when one person’s religious or moral conscience assumes power of judge, jury, and executioner, it is not religious liberty, it is a church sanctioned, one-person death panel, and in the New Jersey case, the death panel was a doctor with a bible and severe hatred for gays.