July 4, 2007
Blog Against Theocracy II: rule of law versus rule of faith
The main Blog Against Theocracy page, which has a slew of great links, is here.
The main problem I have with religion becoming a controlling factor in government — theocracy, or a more mild term if you like — is that it can lead a person to make decisions based on their religious faith, as opposed to the laws of the land and other related elements (e.g. precedent, potential problems with precedent, the best interests of those being governed). Very simply, that’s not what the founding fathers had in mind when they established this country, which is something Evil Bender discusses at length in his Blog Against Theocracy post:
Not an original idea, but a profound one, that governments exist to provide for the needs of its people, and that they must exist only so long as those whom they serve fine [sic] it useful. Government, in this model, was not a God-founded institution demanding obedience, but rather a tool, useful only so long as it upheld the inalienable rights of its people.
The document [i.e. the Declaration of Independence] did not deny a deity, but neither it nor the Constitution would give that deity a central place in the new government. On the contrary, government was conceived as for and by the people.
Allowing one’s religion to be one’s primary guide in matters of government flies in the face of what the founding fathers were trying to establish. A pertinent (and perhaps obvious) example is Bush’s steadfast resistance to federally funding stem cell research. Stem cell research is something that could ultimately make a significant difference in the lives of U.S. citizens who already exist and are already suffering, but Bush is more concerned with what his religion tells him about the embryos upon which the research might be done.
I’d like to venture off the topic of theocracy for a moment to draw a parallel. Just as I believe that governmental decisions should be based on law and the best interests of the governed rather than on religion, so I believe that medical decisions should be based on sound medicine and the best interests of the patient rather than on religion. A post Jill of Feministe wrote in the past week led me to a post written by ema of the Well Timed Period; both posts tackle the issue of reproductive freedom and the ways in which it is thwarted in this country by doctors and/or administrators who feel that the ideology of their religion trumps the best interests of the patient (and yes, I believe an abortion or the adoption of a child by a single woman can indeed be acts that are in the patient’s best interest). Take, for example, the following story from an article in Self magazine:
Ob/gyn Wayne Goldner, M.D., learned this lesson a few years back when a patient named Kathleen Hutchins came to his office in Manchester, New Hampshire. She was only 14 weeks pregnant, but her water had broken. Dr. Goldner delivered the bad news: Because there wasn’t enough amniotic fluid left and it was too early for the fetus to survive on its own, the pregnancy was hopeless. Hutchins would likely miscarry in a matter of weeks. But in the meanwhile, she stood at risk for serious infection, which could lead to infertility or death. Dr. Goldner says his devastated patient chose to get an abortion at local Elliot Hospital. But there was a problem. Elliot had recently merged with nearby Catholic Medical Center—and as a result, the hospital forbade abortions.
“I was told I could not admit her unless there was a risk to her life,” Dr. Goldner remembers. “They said, ‘Why don’t you wait until she has an infection or she gets a fever?’ They were asking me to do something other than the standard of care. They wanted me to put her health in jeopardy.” He tried admitting Hutchins elsewhere, only to discover that the nearest abortion provider was nearly 80 miles away in Lebanon, New Hampshire—and that she had no car. Ultimately, Dr. Goldner paid a taxi to drive her the hour and a half to the procedure. (The hospital merger has since dissolved, and Elliot is secular once again.)
Hearing about the lengths to which Dr. Goldner went to get his patient appropriate treatment does my heart good. However, it should never have come to that in the first place. This case strikes me as fairly clear-cut: the fetus was not going to survive, and the woman’s health was in danger — but the hospital administration believed that adherence to Catholic doctrine was more important than the patient’s well-being. (And yes, I’m well aware that there are times when other things — namely hospital finances — trump the patient’s well-being, but that’s another topic altogether.)
Family physician Debra Stulberg, M.D., was completing her residency in 2004 when West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, Illinois, was acquired by the large Catholic system Resurrection Health Care. “They assured us that patient care would be unaffected,” Dr. Stulberg says. “But then I got to see the reality.” The doctor was struck by the hoops women had to jump through to get basic care. “One of my patients was a mother of four who had wanted a tubal ligation at delivery but was turned down,” she says. “When I saw her not long afterward, she was pregnant with unwanted twins.”
And in emergency scenarios, Dr. Stulberg says, the newly merged hospital did not offer standard-of-care treatments. In one case that made the local paper, a patient came in with an ectopic pregnancy: an embryo had implanted in her fallopian tube. Such an embryo has zero chance of survival and is a serious threat to the mother, as its growth can rupture the tube. The more invasive way to treat an ectopic is to surgically remove the tube. An alternative, generally less risky way is to administer methotrexate, a drug also used for cancer. It dissolves the pregnancy but spares the tube, preserving the women’s fertility. “The doctor thought the noninvasive treatment was best,” Dr. Stulberg recounts. But Catholic directives specify that even in an ectopic pregnancy, doctors cannot perform “a direct abortion”—which, the on-call ob/gyn reasoned, would nix the drug option. (Surgery, on the other hand, could be considered a lifesaving measure that indirectly kills the embryo, and may be permitted.) The doctor didn’t wait to take it up with the hospital’s ethical committee; she told the patient to check out and head to another ER. (Citing patient confidentiality, West Suburban declined to comment, confirming only that as a Catholic hospital, it adheres to religious directives “in every instance.”)
This case, too, strikes me as fairly clear-cut. The embryo was not going to survive, period. The non-invasive procedure was what the doctor recommended, but again, hospital administrators felt that adherence to religious doctrine was more important than the standard of care. (And I find what little the hospital did have to say for itself rather telling.)
I’d like to take a moment to state that I have nothing against people of the Catholic faith. We all muddle through as well as we can; they’ve found something that works for them, and I don’t begrudge them that solace. I have similar feelings toward most people of faith; because of the way I was raised, I have a very live-and-let-live attitude toward spirituality. I get frustrated, then, when people apply their religious tenets to spheres outside of religion. I would ask those who have no problems with the examples I gave above, or the others in the posts and article I linked to, to consider the inverse of the situations: what if a doctor sneered at you for stating that, in addition to treating a disease as well as possible medically speaking, you were going to pray for comfort and healing? What if he forbade you to do so, or refused to treat you because of your faith?
Furthermore, and this brings us back to the issue of theocracy, would you want the government interfering with when, where, and how you were allowed to worship? I think the separation of Church and State works both ways (the reign of “Bloody” Mary I of England is an obvious example of the horrid possibilities inherent in mixing government and religion). Because of that, I think keeping Church and State separate is the best course of action for both entities.