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Nancy Green: Cheap and easy virtue with the conscience clause



People forget history so quickly. The definition of conscience in ‘conscience clause’ is from the Bizzaro World dictionary. Conscience used to mean you walked the walk and sacrificed. Now a militant Christianity married to politics gives you creds for forcing other people to sacrifice. This new conscience only seems to kick in around issues of women’s health and gender identity. Pharmacists aren’t using the conscience clause to give amoxicillin to a poor child with an earache. Doctors aren’t generally challenging an unequal health care system. The conscience clause is designed to protect the rights of providers to refuse care based on their own beliefs. The people who depend on them for care for take the consequences.

Conscientious objectors weren’t always well-placed professionals and corporations (which are people too). Conscientious objectors were individuals who refused to go to war, or defied racial segregation laws. Conscientious objectors faced imprisonment and sometimes paid with their lives for their principles.

My neighbor on the East Side of Providence, John R Kellam, was a Quaker conscientious objector in WWII. Although he could have claimed bone spurs, or taken offers of a non-combat role, he would have to serve the war effort in some capacity. His conscience could not accept opting out so that another man would be drafted. He was against war. For his non-cooperation and challenge to the establishment, he was sent to maximum security at Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

“He refused to take the oath and was arrested and sentenced by a Federal court to serve 5 years in prison. He served a total of 22 and a half months before his release in November of 1946 because the war had already ended.”

John Kellam’s daughter was born while he was in prison, his wife was taken in by a Quaker family who shared his beliefs. You can read his own account in his book, An American Prisoner of Conscience in World War Two, in print or free on the Providence Monthly Meeting website.”

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My own generation faced the Vietnam War and the draft that selected which of my high-school classmates would fight a world away and which would find safe haven in college or a sympathetic doctor to help change their draft status from a 1-A to a 4-F.

“The unpopularity of the Vietnam War increased both the number and the visibility of conscientious objectors. Between 1965 and 1970 more than 170,000 registrants applied for conscientious objector status. The Seeger ruling did not have a wide impact on conscientious objection because local draft boards were free to interpret the ruling as they saw fit. The most celebrated case was that of boxer Muhammad Ali, who in 1966 claimed that military service was inconsistent with his conversion to Islam. Ali should have been covered under Seeger, but his local draft board found his beliefs to be insincere and sentenced him to five years in prison. He remained free on bond until his case was overturned in 1971, but hundreds of Muslims (especially black Muslims) went to jail because courts refused to accept their religion as the basis for conscientious objection.”

Today the religious right has reversed the meaning of conscience. It’s a kind of ‘bone spurs’ exemption that says providers can dodge their obligation to put their patient first. Consequences? That’s for little people.

Washington (CNN): “The Trump administration announced a new rule on religious conscience protections for the medical field on Thursday, aimed at protecting religious and moral objectors from participating in or paying for services such as abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide. The proposal was first unveiled in January 2018.

“Just today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students and faith-based charities. They’ve been wanting to do that a long time,” Trump said during a National Day of Prayer service at the White House Rose Garden on Thursday.”

Yes, they have been wanting to do that for a long time. The Supreme Court upheld the personhood rights of corporations.

They are very big persons. Their employees can’t be heard over the roar of money as speech. The workers sacrifice, the bosses are sanctified. In the Republican Bible we’re cheering for Goliath to stomp David.

One of the sad things about this, is that we Americans probably do have a general consensus about abortion. We think unwanted pregnancies are best prevented. We don’t think that every woman who gets a positive pregnancy test should have to have a baby, but we do want to limit late-term abortion to exceptional circumstances of life and health. As the Reproductive Health Care Act does, for anyone who took the time to read it. We want people to take this decision seriously.

Women do take this seriously. This is a matter of our lives, our bodies, our families, our future.

If I were cynical, I would think that the Religious Right wants to block consensus to keep a flaming issue going to motivate the base. If I were cynical, I’d think the fact that the abortion rate goes down when women and men have access to good health care, including contraception, is one reason they oppose making access to health care available to all.

The Republican consequence-dodging version of conscientious objection has turned what used to be a principled stand into a free ride. But if Republicans succeed in further restricting legal abortion, they may create an underground like the Jane Collective, that helped save women’s lives before Roe v Wade by connecting them with a doctor or practitioner who was competent to terminate their pregnancy safely. That was an act of conscience. That kind of courage emerges when physical or emotional survival is at stake. When integrity demands it. There won’t be any ‘conscience clause’ to protect the women and men who challenge this two-headed monster of church and state, but there are great souls behind them, and they are on the right side of history.

Nancy Green has lived in Providence since the Blizzard of '78. She writes in time off from the day job in community health. She is grateful to live in a city with coffee places you can walk to.