Doctors, Dioceses, and Decisions: Examining the Impact of the Catholic Hospital System and Federal Conscience Clauses on Medical Education

Stephanie M. Wurdock


In a time when health care reform and the limits on First Amendment freedom of religion are persistent subjects of debate, Catholic restrictions on health care have made it to the forefront of public concern. Catholic providers prohibit a variety of medical procedures traditionally viewed by the Church as contrary to the tenet of respect for human life and dignity. Many Americans view this as an unconstitutional restriction on care. As a result, the growing presence of Catholic providers, namely hospitals, has become a major point of contention in many communities. The potential barrier to medical services raises concern not only for potential patients, but also for medical students whose chosen specialty may include a prohibited service. This article identifies some difficulties that may emerge for current and prospective medical students and advocates that both groups should be required to contemplate (1) their personal beliefs as they pertain to religiously-restricted care, and (2) the effects those beliefs will have on their medical education and training. This article also gives a comprehensive background of the history of the Catholic hospital system in America and analyzes the federal "conscience clauses" and their implications for the instruction and practice of medicine. Finally, this article concludes that a mandatory bioethics curriculum is absolutely crucial to ensure adequate ethics training for medical students.

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