Free for Me, But Not for Thee?

by Richard M. Doerflinger

September 19, 2008

It's amazing how unpopular freedom of choice has become among groups that invoke the phrase at every opportunity.

Pro-abortion organizations have long said they oppose legal protection for unborn children because it would infringe on women's freedom to make their own choice. Increasingly, though, it seems some choices are more equal than others.

A case in point is a regulation proposed last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to clarify rights of conscience in health care. The regulation ensures that physicians, nurses, hospitals and other providers are not discriminated against or pushed out of the health care system because they have moral or religious objections to practices such as abortion.

Given their zeal for letting everyone make his or her own decision on abortion – and for leaving that decision to "a woman and her physician" – you might think "pro-choicers" would welcome such a proposal for tolerating different viewpoints. Instead they have condemned this modest regulation as a direct and unprecedented attack on "access" to "reproductive health care," and generated hundreds of thousands of angry and ill-informed notes and letters to HHS demanding that the rule be withdrawn.

The basic facts about the regulation illustrate how ignorant and unwarranted these reactions are. For example, far from being unprecedented, the regulation is long overdue. It simply implements three major statutes passed by Congress, beginning 35 years ago when the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. It clarifies key terms, helps educate all parties involved on the rights that are at stake, and explains how to contact HHS to get help in defending one's rights. It is a scandal that such regulations were not issued years ago. The fact that major groups in the abortion debate clearly didn't know these laws existed is proof that the government needs to highlight them.

A moment's reflection also shows that the regulation has nothing to do with shutting down health care. If abortion, for example, were the widely accepted "mainstream" service that pro-abortion groups claim, it stands to reason that relatively few health professionals will invoke their conscience rights. On the other hand, if many physicians and nurses believe it would violate their faith or their professional oath to kill unborn children, one sure way to undermine access to health care would be to force all these caring women and men out of medicine. A fact ignored by pro-abortion groups, incidentally, is that one of the laws implemented here even forbids discrimination in medical training and staff privileges against those who are willing to do abortions. Do they want to repeal this protection too, or only the protection for people who disagree with them?

All the "pro-choice" groups have shown is their hypocrisy. They favor choice, as long as it is theirs. They want pluralism, as long as it fits their narrow model. Having begun by treating those who are younger and weaker than them as non-persons, they would now treat those who disagree with them as second-class citizens. It turns out "pro-abortion" was the right name for them all along.

Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to to learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities.