Catholic Doctors See Threat to Practicing Their Moral Beliefs

by Nancy Frazier O’Brien,

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Whether they are just starting out or nearing the end of their careers, Catholics who want to practice medicine in conformity with the Church’s teachings wonder how a new federal regulation requiring health plans to cover contraceptives and sterilization free of charge will affect their work.

Although the requirement will not directly impact physicians, some said it represents a governmental intrusion into health care that could grow in the future.

Dr. Anne Nolte, a family physician with the National Gianna Center for Women’s Health and Fertility in New York, thinks the mandate represents “such a dramatic violation of such clearly defined civil rights” that it is bound to be overturned in court.

But, she said, “If Congress failed to pass an act that provides an exemption for the groups affected by this, and the courts in some incomprehensible way allow (the mandate) to stand, then Catholic health care will have to make a decision to practice civil disobedience.”

Dr. Kim Hardey, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Lafayette, La., hopes the decision by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Obama administration will cause Catholics and other Christians to rise up against “the liberal left” and “misguided feminists” who would like to see abortion also become a required part of every medical practice.

“If we can allow the infringement of any group’s beliefs,” everyone’s beliefs are threatened, Hardey said.

The new contraception mandate, with a narrow exemption for religious organizations, is part of implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which sets up new preventative health care coverage specifically for women at no cost.

That coverage includes services such as mammograms, prenatal care and cervical cancer screenings. But it also mandates free contraception, sterilizations and drugs (such as ella and “Plan B”) considered by the Church to be abortifacients – all of which are contrary to Catholic teaching.

Sarah Smith is not a doctor yet, but she worries that the HHS mandate will further sour an atmosphere in which she already finds some challenges to her pro-life convictions.

“The one safe environment – Catholic hospitals – is not even going to be safe anymore” if the contraceptive mandate stands, she said in a telephone interview with CNS from Chicago, where she had just completed the last of “14 or 15” interviews for a residency position in obstetrics and gynecology.

A fourth-year medical student at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Smith made clear on each interview that her Catholic convictions prevent her from involvement in abortion, sterilization or contraception.

She said she’s found that “most doctors as individuals respect my beliefs and my conscience; they might not agree with me, but they’ll defend my right to practice medicine.” Problems are more likely to arise at the institutional level, where medical students and residents are “culturally at the bottom of the totem pole,” Smith noted.