Conscientious Objectors to Killing Pre-Birthers

Nat Hentoff

Here I come again with an act of free inquiry into a life issue that will cause some readers to ask why the editor publishes this heretical contrarian. I have been an absolutist atheist for some seventy years, never looking back—nor to the heavens for guidance. I am also pro-life, obviously not for religious reasons but because I am in accord with a statement in the February 18, 1990, Journal of the American Medical Association by North Carolina physician Dr. Joel Hylton, backed up in a number of standard medical textbooks: “Who can deny that the fetus is alive and is a separate genetic entity? Its humanity cannot be questioned scientifically. It is certainly of no other species. That it is dependent on another makes it qualitatively no different from countless other humans outside the womb.”

Therefore, although I have written abundantly about the Bush-Cheney regime’s war crimes as clearly defined in our own War Crimes Statute and international covenants this nation has signed, I agree with last December 18’s federal rulings by outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt that strengthen previous state laws protecting the hospital affiliations of medical professionals and staff, as well as the jobs of other health-care providers, who refuse to be involved in abortions or abortion referrals.

They are, in my view, conscientious objectors. But to supporters of basic abortion rights, codified in law (Roe v. Wade and other Supreme Court decisions), these rulings on the Bush administration’s way out the door constitute a flagrant denial of women’s rights to make fundamental decisions about their own lives.

Says Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards (National Public Radio, December 18): “The Bush administration has now opened the door to allow individuals, based on their own personal biases, to deny patients access to information and health-care services,” including abortions (emphasis added).

Also opposed is the influential American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which last November issued an official ethics rule, “The Limits of Conscientious Refusal in Reproductive Medicine.” That statement refers to conscientious objections in the context of abortion as only subjective “sentiments” (Washington Times, December 19).

The American Civil Liberties Union, long a champion of—and litigator for—reproductive freedom also, of course, strongly opposes the Leavitt rules. As phrased by the New York Civil Liberties Union (with which I’ve worked on many civil liberties cases), these federal rules place “refusal rights over health care needs.”

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman adds that these regulations destroy the previous “careful balance between protecting patients’ access to reproductive health care and religious liberty.”

This assumes that all pro-lifers are religious, inaccurately leaving me and others out. But the ACLU’s position is consistent with its own fundamental attitude that individual human beings not yet born do not have civil liberties, not being fully “persons.”

I suggest to the ACLU that it consider this passage from a medical textbook—not written by pro-lifers but by practicing physicians—The Unborn Patient: Prenatal Diagnosis and Treatment (W.B. Saunders Company, a division of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich): “The concept that the fetus is a patient, an individual whose maladies are a proper subject for medical treatment as well as scientific observation is alarmingly modern. . . . Only now are we beginning to consider the fetus seriously—medically, legally and ethically.”

But this individual human patient can, under our laws, be ethically and medically killed by abortions permitted within these laws.

To dismiss my pro-life views as “biases” and “sentiments”—rather than a conviction that abortion is talking a human life—reminds me of a years-long debate I’ve had with a friend who finds it absurd that I call myself a libertarian since I deny women their essential liberty to abort. He once angrily challenged me: “If you’re really an authentic pro-lifer, why don’t you kill abortionists?”

“Because I am pro-life,” I said.

However, when my friend’s first child was on the way, a physician recommended a sonogram for her to see and understand his concern about a possible defect in the fetus. She watched with her husband, who soon after told me how startled he was to see this—this fetus—moving and reacting like a human being. He’s still pro-choice but appears to have some understanding why I’m not.

As I write, before the inauguration of President Barack Obama, this debate about the departing Bush administration’s regulations is increasingly fiery, but the pro-choicers will happily see those rules dissolved in the next administration. Not only will they be struck down by the predominantly pro-choice and Democratic majority in Congress, but also the new president will enthusiastically promote and sign legislation to overrule these “biases” and “sentiments” that obstruct the right to abortion.

In other decisions Obama will almost surely take, I’m sure I will applaud him as he restores the separation of powers that Bush and Cheney tore out of the Constitution, as well as forbidding the continuance of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prisons (“black sites” in its jargon); renouncing and—I hope—punishing our torturers and those all the way up the chain of command that set them loose. But we will be on opposite sides of the continuing abortion wars.

While in the Illinois legislature, Obama voted three times against a bill that would have required medical attention for a baby born alive after a botched abortion; and in April 2008, at a town-hall campaign appearance in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, speaking of his pro-choice commitment, he said of his two daughters: “I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby. So it doesn’t make sense to not give them the information.”

In July, the year before, Barack Obama said during a Planned Parenthood event that one of his first acts as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. This legislation, very likely to pass a Democratic Congress for his signature, would invalidate state parental-notification laws and supersede nearly all laws, regulations, or local ordinances interfering—assures California Senator Barbara Boxer—with women having “the absolute right to choose.” The Freedom of Choice Act will also get rid of the “conscience rights” in many states that allow doctors and others involved in reproductive health-care to refuse to be involved in abortions.

Another California Senator, Dianne Feinstein, celebrated the election of our new president as “a new birth of freedom.” I sure hope it will be if he works to convene an equivalent of the 9/11 Commission to fully disclose the Bush-Cheney savaging of the Bill of Rights and its creation of a surveillance society. But his presidency will hardly be “a new birth of freedom” for the pre-born Americans with an individually distinctive DNA and, I insist, a right to life.

Anyway, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and other pro-choicers needn’t worry about those December rules affirming conscientious objection to abortion. But there will continue to be doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers who will disobey orders from the state to kill the preborn.

One possible
controversy to add fuel to this ceaseless civil war could be ignited by the American College of Obstetricians and Surgeons if it decides to wield its November ethics pronouncements against physician conscientious objectors to abortion. Since ACOG also advocates that pro-life obstetricians be required to perform abortions—or refer patients to doctors who do—what happens to those who still resist?

Since the ACOG positions can affect board certification of obstetricians, those physicians who keep insisting on life as their professional principle “presumably stand to lose their hospital privileges and their livelihood,” says Jonathan Imbody, vice president for government relations for the Christian Medical Association.

I guess you could say Imbody is prejudiced in his prediction. Sure. He’s prejudiced in favor of life.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).


Here I come again with an act of free inquiry into a life issue that will cause some readers to ask why the editor publishes this heretical contrarian. I have been an absolutist atheist for some seventy years, never looking back—nor to the heavens for guidance. I am also pro-life, obviously not for religious reasons …

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