Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.—Albert Einstein

Individual liberty is elemental to what is means to be an American. But in recent years the personal liberty and freedom of conscience of our doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have been threatened. Although “conscience clause” protections have been federal law since the 1970s and strengthened over the years, doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have found themselves to be the targets of threats, including legal action, intended to coerce them into compliance with immoral and, and often, illicit acts. Today, the Bush Administration took action to uphold the law and re-enforce the protections for our health care professionals, an act for which all Americans should be grateful.

The regulation tells employers in our $2 trillion health care system that discrimination against workers who refuse to participate in the performance or procurement of abortion or other unethical practices that violate their religious beliefs or moral convictions could jeopardize the employers’ participation in government funded programs. Since government programs provide about 45 percent of the spending on health care, principally through Medicare and Medicaid, but also through a variety of public health service grants, this is a powerful and important enforcement tool.

The right of any person to act according to their own conscience is integral to what makes us human. It is indispensable to us as human beings, as much as oxygen. The right of conscientious objection is even protected in times of war for those who cannot use violence in violation of their ethical or moral convictions. Without protection for acting in accordance with one’s own conscience, there is and can be no individual liberty. Without such protections, physicians are reduced to mere body amoral mechanics.

Opponents of this rule would do well to reflect and understand that the freedom of one individual cannot entitle that person to coerce or violate the freedom of another. Moreover, no person who coerced another for his own advantage can truly be free himself.

The transition between the Bush and the Obama Administrations is a time for sober reflection.America is a rich, diverse, pluralistic society. What does it mean to be free as an American? What is our commitment to personal liberty? How sincere are we in respecting the convictions of others?

The future of the Bush Administration’s rule will be a key test of the kind of country we are, and also a key indicator for the type of health care reform policies that will be pursued by the Obama administration. People of faith and the future of faith-based institutions need to know that their freedom is secure, and that government, which was designed by the Founding Fathers, to protect the personal rights and liberties of all Americans will not be a callous bystander when the rights of conscience of any American are threatened, including the conscience of those who serve in the medical profession who know that their mission is the protection and enhancement of life itself.

When a state sets itself up as absolute as God, when it claims sovereignty over the soul, when it destroys freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, then the state has ceased to be political and has begun to be a counter-Church.—Bishop Fulton Sheen