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Protecting Personal Beliefs

The states and the federal government have passed laws that allow medical care professionals, with some exceptions, to refuse to participate in abortions. These laws are strictly the result of political compromises, not constitutional rights. While most medical care providers who oppose abortion do so on religious grounds, this does not trigger the First Amendment's protection of the free exercise of religion. A law that regulated abortion or any other medical treatment on religious grounds would constitute an illegal establishment of religion.

These laws are limited in two respects. First, they apply to actions, not to patient counseling. A physician cannot appeal to a conscience law to defend a medical malpractice lawsuit based on failure to counsel a patient about the medical indications for abortion. Second, they have limited applicability in emergency situations. If a woman presents to the emergency room in extremis because of an incomplete abortion, the emergency room physician cannot hide behind a conscience law and allow the woman to die. Fortunately, almost all medical care providers treat saving a mother's life as of a higher ethical urgency than their personal religious beliefs.

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