Sunday, March 19, 2006

Looking Before Leaping: Plan B and the Catholic Conscience

Catholic hospitals presently withhold Plan B pills from rape victims who are pregnant or ovulating. Plan B pills are administered to other rape victims in Catholic hospitals. In cases in which the pills cannot in good conscience be administered, the patients are referred to other near-by hospitals. The arguments presented by those who favor legislation forcing Catholic Hospitals to provide Plan B to patients that are referred to other providers include the following points:

1) Opposition to the use of Plan B pills in Catholic hospitals is being waged by “local Catholic bishops.” The implication is that local bishops have distorted the teaching of their church by viewing the use of Plan B pills after ovulation as aborticides.

2) Catholic bishops are “not competent” to make “scientific judgments.” But, of course, it is not Catholic bishops who presently make the scientific judgments that a) the rape victim is pregnant, or b) ovulation is occurring. These judgments are made by competent medical personnel. The bishops are simply applying a theological rule to the judgments. It is by no means “unscientific” to assert that ovulation is the beginning of the birth process. That assertion is made by the manufacturers of Plan B in their literature. The Plan B pill, after all, is designed to prevent birth after other birth control methods have failed.

3) The Plan B pill is not an aborticide; it is a contraceptive, because it acts before pregnancy has occurred. The pill may be ingested before a pregnancy occurs. But if a pregnancy is in process, Plan B acts as an abortifacient. In a column printed in the Hartford Courant Ms. Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, asserts that Plan B is not an aborticide, an untenable argument for those who claim that Catholic hospitals permit the use of Plan B “only when it is not necessary.” In her column, Ms. Kissling claims the Catholic health care industry has attempted to “sooth public alarm” by claiming it does provide Plan B to rape victims, “but only if they don’t need it.” Presumably, the pill would be “needed” only after conception has occurred, to prevent an issue that is not wanted. In other words, Plan B is “needed” only to abort a pregnancy.

4) The theological precision of the church doctrines relating to abortion are “hair splitting.” Actually, the controlling doctrine is very precise: If the medical procedure results in an abortion, the procedure may not be permitted because the church has determined that abortion is a crime in cannon law, the punishment for which is excommunication. The position of pro-abortionists may be less precise -- scientifically. In some instances, they do not agree with most scientists – and the producers of Plan B – that the birth cycle begins with ovulation.

5) The morality of “emergency contraception” should be determined by rape victims – not clerics. Ms. Kissling puts it this way in her column: “…no bishop and no hospital board member has the right to substitute his conscience for that of a woman who has been raped.” Adopting the Kissling rule, what countervailing moral precept will Ms. Kissling rely upon to prevent her rule from being extended to rapists? The church has objectively determined that rape is a sin. Should the “right” to make that moral judgment be reserved only to the conscience of rapists? If only I have the “right” to determine morality, is it not plain that I may determine all my actions to be moral – even those that Ms. Kissling and the Catholic Church may find immoral? Furthermore, if only a person directly affected by a rule may determine whether it is an offense to conscience, why should Ms. Kissling – or Connecticut’s legislature – have the “right” to tell Catholics in hospitals that they must dispense aborticides to their patients? If morality is to be determined subjectively by the individual conscience, why shouldn’t Catholic hospitals be forced to provide abortions – not merely birth preventatives – to patients whose consciences have determined that abortion does not offend their moral sense? Is it possible that whether something is moral or immoral must be objectively determined – preferably not by immoralists?

6) When a conflict in conscience exists, Ms. Kissling decrees in her column, “decent people will agree that it should be settled in favor of the woman” who has been raped. But some people would argue that the present arrangement in Catholic hospitals is a true mediation between the needs of the woman who has been raped and the Catholic conscience that would be violated by pending legislation. Conflict mediators will agree that it simply will not do to abolish one term of a conflict of interest and claim that the conflict has been suitably addressed. After all, any conflict between observant Catholics and the pro-abortion lobby may be settled by abolishing Catholicism. In China and India, abortion is used to control populations. And in India particularly, abortion is employed to thin out the population of women – a perfectly legal procedure. There are, however, some people who claim the process is immoral, because it is used invidiously against women. Relying upon the theological doctrine that life is sacred, the Catholic Church vigorously has opposed these practices. It is important to understand that a “right” is something citizens have in virtue of positive laws establishing the right. But suppose a “right” is wrong in the moral sense. How are such “rights” to be righted except by the application of a pre-eminent moral authority objectively arrived at? If there is no moral foothold beyond positive law, how will we protest the injustice of the laws? What is our authority for claiming that slavery must not be permitted in countries where it is permitted by law? And if such issues are to be decided solely by an individual’s conscience, what is our warrant for deciding the issue in favor of the slave and against the slave owner, both of whom have consciences?

These are questions that ought to be addressed and fully debated before the state legislature, bowing to special interests, passes a bill that may create more problems than it solves.
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