In 1804, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams on the free exercise of individual conscience in America, and its indispensability to our freedoms. We may disagree, wrote the Founder, but that disagreement is to be welcomed, not crushed: “I tolerate with utmost latitude the right of others to differ with me in opinion without imputing to them criminality. I know too well all the weaknesses and uncertainty of human reason to wonder at its different results.”
Martha Coakley thinks she knows better than Thomas Jefferson.
The Democratic contender for the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat made her uphill climb to election a bit steeper this past Thursday when she told radio host Ken Pittman of WBSM that persons with certain ethical principles should not work in the medical professions. Pittman specifically asked Coakley about the rights of conscience of health care providers, and segued into a query on Roman Catholics in Massachusetts’s hospitals.
A response grounded in the American tradition of pluralism, freedom of conscience, and an ethical consideration for the autonomy of the individual would have gone something like this: “Ken, it’s not the state’s proper role to interpose itself between the conscience of the provider and that provider’s duties. In America, government derives its moral convictions and authority from the people — not the other way around.”
Martha Coakley is not grounded in the American tradition of pluralism, freedom of conscience, or an ethical consideration for the autonomy of the individual. Her response to Pittman was to denounce the idea of any allowance for individual conscience in federal health care legislation. Then she uttered the line that alone ought to sink her campaign: “The law says that people are allowed to have that. You can have religious freedom but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.”
It’s not often that a candidate for federal office goes on the record with her belief that whole classes of Americans should be excluded from whole sectors of our economy. Martha Coakley did exactly that, and the only term to describe it is one we should use sparingly in our public discourse. It should be reserved for direct attacks on our heritage as a free country of free people. It should be reserved for assaults on the foundations of our liberties as laid down in the American Revolution.
Martha Coakley’s declaration that Roman Catholics “probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room” doesn’t just betray an ignorance of history and society, though it does both in full. Catholic provision of health care is a proud tradition of centuries that, if you’re theologically minded, goes back to the healings of the Apostles–and if you’re historically minded, goes back to the lay and clerical orders that provided care to travelers, pilgrims and the poor beginning in the Dark Ages. In the United States today, Catholic healthcare facilities exist in all 50 states. Despite Coakley’s wish that they not do so, those facilities provided care in nearly 17 million emergency-room visits last year.
Beyond Coakley’s ignorance, the effect of her pronouncement is nothing short of pernicious. If public officials decide it’s appropriate to recommend exclusion of faith groups from employment, where does that end? It doesn’t take much imagination to grasp that the threat only begins with Catholics. Adherents of Christian Science might find would-be U.S. Senators questioning their fitness for any health-related profession. Believers in literal Biblical creation could see liberal officeholders demanding their ejection from the teaching profession. Muslim faithful might be urged out of security and military professions.
The logical consequences of Martha Coakley’s statement are both grotesque and stupid.
Martha Coakley does not exist in a vacuum. Her belief that conscience and its protections must be forced out of the health care sector are tightly bound up with the ideology underlying the president’s push for health care reform. That reform threatens ever-greater government involvement in health care, and probably portends its takeover if passed.
With that comes the precedence of government priorities–and there’s little room for individual conscience then. That’s why President Obama last month moved to revoke the conscience protections afforded health care workers and providers under federal rules. As Kevin Hasson and Luke Goodrich of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty wrote, “Regardless of one’s view on abortion, contraceptives, war or capital punishment, respecting conscience only when one agrees with you is no respect for conscience at all. Those who champion “choice” and “tolerance” should respect the conscience-based choices of those with whom they disagree.”
President Obama is taking the first step toward forcing healthcare professionals to follow the government’s ethical agenda rather than their own. If Martha Coakley wins on Tuesday, it won’t be the last.
Ken Blackwell is a fellow at the Family Research Council and a visiting professor at Liberty University School of Law. He is a former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission.