I entered the MD/PhD Program at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine in the fall of 2011. I am deeply committed to the sanctity of every human life, and I knew going into Dartmouth that many of my classmates and professors would disagree with my genuinely held beliefs. However, Dartmouth is an institution that deeply values diversity in all forms, and this includes diversity of thought. This was a major factor in my decision to enroll, and I am so thankful that I did.
Over the last five years, I have encountered a wide variety of people with all sorts of views and beliefs, and as a result I have experienced tremendous personal growth. For the most part, the people with whom I’ve debated controversial issues have been reasonable. Occasionally, I have encountered unreasonable people who have opted to turn my pro-life stance into an opportunity for personal attack. In those instances, I have been defamed, intimidated, and belittled. I have been told I have no right to practice medicine because of my beliefs. Through these experiences, I have learned that we need structural supports to safeguard conscience rights. We cannot take good will for granted.
This is why Congress should vote to pass HR 4828, the Conscience Protection Act of 2016. It’s a good bill, and it does not change anything about access to abortion or legality of abortion. Regardless of whether the bill passes, abortion will be just as legal in the United States of America on Thursday, July 14, as it is today, Wednesday, July 13, the day the House of Representatives is set to vote on this bill.
The Importance of Individual Conscience
The Conscience Protection Act protects all health care providers and health care insurance companies from facing discrimination or fines for being pro-life. The bill states that the government cannot force health care professionals to perform or participate in abortions, and it cannot force health care providers such as churches and universities to cover abortion procedures through their insurance plans. In fact, the bill also explicitly states that this measure applies both ways: it includes measures to preserve the voluntary participation of individuals who want to provide or participate in abortions as well.
Why is the protection of conscience rights so significant? Each person has a conscience, and the development of the conscience hinges on personal formation. Our life experiences shape not only our memories but also our ability to make choices. As the ethical system of Aristotle teaches us, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Ultimately, the shaping of our conscience requires true freedom: freedom from coercion and freedom for the pursuit of our fullest humanity, in the fullness of truth. The key to an excellent life, as our Founding Fathers recognized, comes through the safeguarding of all of our basic freedoms.
As an aspiring physician and scientist, I particularly recognize the critical importance of freedom of thought—and the freedom to act in accordance with our best thoughts. Scientific inquiry is the basis of medical advancement, and scientists must be free to generate and test hypotheses in order to make important discoveries. In a similar way, health care providers must be free to make recommendations based on their expertise, training, and learned experiences in order to provide the highest quality care to patients. That’s the whole point of undergoing such extensive training in order to become a health care provider. Each person who walks into a medical facility seeking health care needs to know that his or her provider is operating freely in pursuit of the best health interests of each patient.
In medical school, I have studied embryology and anatomy. I became convinced from a scientific perspective that human life begins at conception. I used my faculties of reason to discern the truth, and I realized that I cannot provide or participate in abortion procedures. I would be violating my conscience if I tried to live as anything other than a pro-life person. From my vantage point as a pro-life medical student, I need to know that my freedom of conscience extends beyond the walls of my house. Specifically, I need to know that I have the freedom to make recommendations to my future patients based on my knowledge and experience, and that I am free from coercion when I make those recommendations. I need to know that I can evaluate the scientific literature and make medical decisions based on what is best for my patients, not based on political rhetoric or fear of repercussions.
Too many times over the last half decade, I have met likeminded students across the country who are afraid to speak up for their own consciences. At medical and graduate training programs across the nation, students like me find themselves stereotyped. We immediately become the “super religious” kids, and there are often implications in that label. Religiosity often codes for ignorance, closed-mindedness, and backward social views. Ironically, many of the pro-life students I have met in New England are not particularly religious. Some are atheists or agnostics, some consider themselves culturally affiliated with a religious group but not actively practicing. The inherent discomfort of being labeled is amplified for them because of the assumption that “pro-life” means “holier-than-thou.”
What’s Really at Stake
When I first moved to New England, some older students advised me to keep my head down. “Don’t rock the boat,” they told me. “One day, when you graduate, you can get to a position where you can create change.” But if I suppress my conscience throughout my training, I will repeatedly squelch my beliefs, and I will suffer internal turmoil because of the forced dissociation of my beliefs from my actions.
As the late Elie Wiesel so poignantly reminded us:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.
Wiesel went on to point out that this applies “wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views.”
Much of the opposition to the Conscience Protection Act comes from a misunderstanding of what’s really at stake. I have come to expect skewed representation of information from certain media sources, but the underlying problem is even more pervasive. Even our elected members of Congress can misconstrue what’s really at stake: protecting the freedom of Americans to be pro-life without discrimination.
Last week, I wrote to my New Hampshire congressional representatives regarding the Conscience Protection Act. I wrote to them explaining why conscience rights are so important, and why I, as a voter in their state and a future health care professional, implore them to vote to protect my conscience rights, even if they disagree with my conscientious belief about the sanctity of life. One of my representatives wrote back to me and said, “thank you for reaching out to me with your views on a woman’s right to choose.” This illustrates the depth of the political rhetoric surrounding abortion legislation.
But in a way, that’s right. I am asking Congress to protect a woman’s right to choose. I’m asking Congress to protect this woman’s right to choose not to perform an abortion. I’m asking Congress to protect freedom of conscience, and my elected representative is responding by dodging the crux of the issue and wrapping her dissent in the translucent coat of protecting women’s right to choose an abortion.
The Conscience Protection Act is significant because it sends a message to the entire nation that our freedom of conscience and religious freedom are protected and valued. It serves as a promise from our legislators to the people, a promise that the United States of America really is the land of the free and home of those brave enough to stand up for what they believe in. By voting to pass this bill, Congress would acknowledge that people like me, pro-life students in academia, are just as free to oppose abortion as our pro-choice counterparts are to support it, and that no one can force us to violate our genuinely held beliefs.
Ana Maria Dumitru is a fifth-year MD-PhD candidate at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.