A doctor’s right to choose versus the rights of a woman to choose

An unemployed, divorced woman with six children – living with her bankrupt parents in their teensy weensy home – gave birth to eight babies after having fertilized eggs implanted in her uterus. At least one of her older six children has autism. 

For a variety of reasons, people are scandalized. Most people have religious or moral objections to this multiple birth. It’s hard to believe these children will get the care they need without becoming responsibilities of the state. It’s hard to imagine they won’t suffer.

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The Colorado Springs Gazette opines: If one encountered the physician who performed this implantation, a fair questioning might ensue: “Why did you do it? Why did you help a woman produce eight children in one pregnancy? What were you thinking? Have you no scruples?”

Few would agree with anything the physician could say. It just doesn’t seem right. 

One can think of multiple religious and moral reasons why it seems wrong to help a poor woman with six needy children to artificially produce eight more.

Now imagine the federal government said the physician had no choice. Visualize a government that says any physician working for a business that receives federal funds – which includes most medical employers – can be fired for refusing a medical procedure on a basis of moral or religious objections.

If our country had regulations such as that, then a physician would have no choice the next time a poor woman came in and asked for assistance with in vitro fertilization and implantation of multiple embryos. “I’ll take eight of those zygotes, please doctor. It’s my uterus, and you answer to me.”

“Well that seems immoral,” the physician might say. “It violates my conscience. It’s wrong. I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. God tells me it’s wrong.”

None of that would matter, because of federal regulations against physicians objecting on moral or religious grounds. Any such law, of course, would be absurd.

Yet an amazing number of Americans – even some who fancy themselves “libertarian” philosophers – advocate federal policies and laws that would effectively force physicians to perform abortions and to prescribe the morning-after pill despite moral and religious objections. They speak about a patient’s “right” to health care procedures, callously dismissing the moral objections some doctors may have to specific procedures.

They objected to a recent directive by then-President George W. Bush, which protects the jobs of health care workers who decline to perform abortions.

While many would require doctors to perform abortions, few would advocate requiring them to implant multiple embryos in a womb. From a public policy perspective, the inconsistency is best characterized as an example of circumstantial ethics. Those who favor requiring physicians to perform abortions claim religious and moral objections have no merit. Yet, given another set of circumstances those religious and moral convictions have great merit.

That’s the problem with people who trade in circumstantial ethics: the root causes they project, such as “freedom from religion” and moral neutrality in medicine, appear as façades.

Individual freedoms, as protected by the United States Constitution, are not circumstantial. The free exercise of religion protects doctors who refuse to commit abortions, just as it protects the doctors who decline other, less fashionable procedures – including in vitro fertilization.

CREDIT – This editorial was printed in the Colorado Springs Gazette on February 3, 2009.