Conscience Clause Affects Local Physicians

Dr. Eric Nelson, an anesthesiologist at St. Luke’s Hospital, Milwaukee and his wife, Suzanne, believe that removing the conscience clause, which protects Eric from participating in any procedure that violates his Catholic principles, is unacceptable. Eric and Suzanne are pictured with their children, from left to right, Sarah, 13, Emily, 14, Simon, 8, Ben, 12 and 23-month-old Margaret, who sits on Suzanne’s lap. (Catholic Herald photo by Matt Dixon)
How to get involved
Comments regarding the HHS proposal may be submitted electronically on the Web site (by entering 0991-AB49 in the search box) or via e-mail to

By mail, one original and two copies of written comments may be sent to: Office of Public Health and Science, Department of Health and Human Services, Attention: Rescission Proposal Comments, Hubert H. Humphrey Building, 200 Independence Ave. SW, Room 716G, Washington, DC 20201.

Conscience clause affects local physicians

Change proposed by Obama opposed by bishops

By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald

When Dr. Eric Nelson, an anesthesiologist at St. Luke’s Hospital, was in residence at Rush Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago from 1992 to 1995, he was often concerned that he might be called to assist with questionable surgical procedures dealing with the sanctity of human life.

He and other health care workers frequently consulted with priests in the area about the subject of abortion, but they were told that as long as they were not directly performing the abortion, they should not to be worried about their participation in it.

“It just didn’t sit right with me,” Nelson said. “It felt like a lot of misinformation, and it seemed as if everyone was afraid to take a stand and that it was easy to find a priest who would tell you what you wanted to hear.”

Struggling with his Catholic faith, conscience and his profession as a new doctor, he found comfort in the advice from a priest friend from Michigan who presided at his wedding to wife Suzanne in 1983. He guided him in making his decision.

“He was a wonderful, no-nonsense and by-the-book Catholic,” said Nelson, a member of Holy Family Parish, Whitefish Bay. “He told me that I was not to participate in any procedure that was involved in a loss of life. Period.”

Most cases were straightforward and easy to spot as an abortion procedure, or evacuating the products of conception, but some were a bit more difficult to decipher. One day, Nelson was called to the OB floor at Rush to assist with a D & C procedure. After reading the woman’s chart, he was unable to determine the reason for the scheduled surgery and spoke to a certified registered nurse anesthetist on duty about the procedure.

“I told him that I needed more information before I was comfortable assisting with this case,” Nelson said. “I told him that if it was anything to do with an abortion, I didn’t want to do it.”

The nurse anesthetist agreed with him and told Nelson that his contract contained a conscience clause eliminating him from participating in any procedure that violates his Catholic principles. The doctor immediately put his name on the same list, legally protecting him from discrimination or reprimand from his superiors.

“I talked to my priest in Michigan again and became savvy about checking into things,” he said. “I don’t always know everything, because it isn’t always spelled out in the chart. But I do not knowingly want to participate in any procedure that stems from or leads to the demise of a baby or anyone else.”

Under a proposal supported by President Barack Obama and which is being considered by the Department of Health and Human Services, physicians and other health care providers may no longer have the right to conscientiously object to such medical procedures. Obama has asked HHS to rescind a regulation that gives federal protection to the conscience rights of health care providers and institutions. The rule codifies three longtime federal statutes prohibiting discrimination against health professionals who decline to participate in abortions or other medical procedures because of their religious or other moral objections.

Not only does conscientious objection protect doctors and nurses who refuse to perform or assist in abortions, but it also lies in the non-medical service personnel who might be called to help in an abortion facility, such as plumbers, electricians, housekeepers, food service personnel and others who do business there.

While it might be easy to refuse to do businesses with specific abortion providers, many, in fact, may be servicing facilities without realizing that abortions are committed there, such as if the new bill requires abortions to be provided in Catholic hospitals.

Federal law, under Title VII, states, “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s … religion,” and further indicates that “the term ‘religion’ includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief…”

As Catholics and parents, removing the conscience clause is unacceptable to the Nelsons, who have five children, ages 14, 13, 12, 8, and 23-month-old Margaret, a healthy baby with Down syndrome. While her birth was not what either expected, the most difficult aspect was the cruel comments from others.

“I have had people ask me why my wife didn’t have an abortion when they realized Margaret was going to have Down syndrome,” Nelson said. “I was just dumbfounded at the reactions; here I was reaching out and hoping for encouragement – I couldn’t believe it.”

Both have felt the sting of friendships lost due to their pro-life stance, but realize that it is more important to do what is right in God’s eyes than preserve friendships that are so callous about the sanctity of human life.

“People will go to great lengths to justify evil and evil behavior. We impose our beliefs on people every day, and the latest is this thing where animals are people too; what is this?” Nelson said. “I agree that we should not be cruel to animals, but at the exclusion of human life? I will never condone inhumane things or torturing animals, but really I can’t hear what they say about animals; there are too many babies screaming.”

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