by Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie
Medical professionals on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic desperately need reinforcements. That’s why President Biden, in his “American Rescue Plan,” proposes enough funding to triple the number of community health care workers.
But if the administration doesn’t have a clear policy of enforcing longstanding conscience protections for health care providers, it will jeopardize their ability to recruit the talent we need to defeat the coronavirus.
Religious health care providers have a robust and lengthy history of providing quality care to people from all walks of life. Here at home, they have been on the front lines of the COVID pandemic, serving vulnerable populations such as the homeless and prisoners suffering from HIV, and they care for victims of sex trafficking, opioid addiction, and gang violence. Abroad, they serve in war zones and refugee clinics, with some even contracting Ebola while treating patients during the Liberia outbreak. But President Biden’s pick of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead his administration’s Health & Human Services Department is a polarizing choice for a president who promised unity.
Becerra has a long history of hostility towards doctors and nurses whose deeply held religious beliefs compel them to abstain from things like referring patients for abortion or filling scripts for abortion-inducing drugs.
Becerra has also led the attack on crucial federal regulations protecting medical professionals from choosing between their career and their conscience. These regulations do nothing more than ensure that longstanding, bipartisan conscience protections in federal law are actually enforced by HHS.
Decreasing access to health care by kicking qualified, compassionate providers out of the practice of medicine is bad policy for two reasons. First, it is not who we are as a country. We have always honored religious freedom — from protecting conscientious objectors at the time of our founding and allowing doctors to opt out of participation in the death penalty to respecting medical providers who must avoid involvement in abortion. And second, it directly undermines our ability to effectively respond to the current health crisis. America requires fully staffed hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices fulfilling the medical needs of households and communities harmed by the pandemic.
Becerra’s efforts to overturn time-tested, common-sense conscience protections foreshadow what a world without conscience protections might look like — doctors would either have to perform abortions or risk losing their medical license. Take Dr. Regina Frost, an OB-GYN serving patients in Detroit, for example. As a devout Christian, she would be forced out of her profession if Planned Parenthood had its way — every OB-GYN would be required to perform abortions or leave the job.
Dr. Frost courageously spoke about how her faith is an integral part of who she is — it is an identity that cannot be separated from her work. It is the driving force behind her desire to improve and save women’s lives and their unborn babies every day. If she were mandated to perform an abortion on a patient, she would have no choice but to leave the medical profession and the patients who have relied on her care for years.
We know that failing to give clear, intentional conscience protections discourages recruitment of bright new talent to the medical field. Instead of dividing us and stripping medical professionals of protections that Congress has long sought to offer, the Biden administration instead needs to unite us in this medical crisis by equipping workers with everything they need to fight the pandemic. Becerra’s record shows he is a divider, not a uniter.
Doctors, nurses and other frontline medical heroes — physically and emotionally exhausted from months of seemingly endless shifts — deserve to know that their life’s work is valued and respected, no matter their faith background. Protecting their right of conscience in their practice is not an abstract issue. Steamrolling them will have real, tangible impacts on the patients who rely on them for quality care.
In a big, diverse country like ours, there is more than enough room to ensure that everyone will receive the care they need without forcing doctors to perform procedures that are inconsistent with their faith and best medical judgment.
America’s medical heroes deserve our respect for their brave service; they should not be punished for their religious beliefs. Nor should Americans’ access to health care suffer simply because of a person’s deeply held religious beliefs. But that’s Becerra’s track record. We don’t need an anti-conscience culture warrior to lead our nation’s health efforts.
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Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy adviser for The Catholic Association.