Accommodating Conscientious Objection in Contemporary Healthcare Policy

I am interested in the intersections of public policy, religion, and healthcare. For the past few years, I have studied at Georgetown University, a Catholic-Jesuit university located in Washington, D.C. For this reason, conversations about the appropriate role of religion in public policy are relatively common on my campus. However, these conversations became increasingly heated as the Obama Administration publicly clashed with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the Affordable Care Act’s mandate for insurers to provide coverage for contraceptive services. Since the United States remains the most religiously-devout of developed countries (about 89% of Americans believe in a supernatural deity or God), and the Affordable Care Act constitutes one of the largest health reforms in U.S. history, I suspect that conflicts between religious expression and healthcare policy may become more prevalent in the near future. This is especially likely because the U.S. is also becoming increasingly diverse along religious and philosophical lines.

As an aspiring physician, I am interested in analyzing healthcare laws’ provisions for conscientious objection. The right to a conscientious objection (or a conscience exemption) is defined as the right of a medical professional to abstain from a procedure that would directly conflict with his/her deeply-held religious or philosophical beliefs. For example, this could mean a devoutly Catholic doctor abstaining from performing an abortion requested by a patient. For my research project, I plan to study the 1973 Church Amendment and how its provision for conscience exemptions regarding abortions influences contemporary healthcare policy debates. In particular, I want to highlight the recent contraception coverage debate because it has brought attention to divisions not only within President Obama’s own party, but also within religious institutions like the Catholic Church. I hope to interview physicians, government officials, and religious leaders in order to gain various perspectives on the issue. I also seek to understand the policy ramifications for accommodating conscientious objection, and how the administration attempts to balance freedom of religious expression with the need to provide quality healthcare.

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