Abortion, Conscientious Objectors, and Timing

April 28, 2005 | 23 comments
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There’s an interesting discussion over at M* about how an LDS health-care worker ought to handle a request by a patient for an abortion. The issues are similar to those that arise when discussing how to treat conscientious objectors in wartime.

On the one hand, it is possible to argue that conscientious objectors should simply refrain from joining the organization in the first place. If you don’t want to go to war and shoot people, don’t join the army; if you don’t want to give referrals to abortion clinics, don’t be a nurse. This argument is based on a strong application of waiver — whatever moral objections an employee had towards some activity, she has waived them. It is a conceptually coherent argument, and would apply equally to both soldiers and health care professionals.

On the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made as well that society should respect the wishes of conscientious objectors. These are deeply held beliefs, and people should not be forced to act against their morals.

However, there is also the important question of timing. It is the conscientious objector’s responsibility to alert her employer ahead of time that she will not perform certain activities. Otherwise, she may end up in a situation where other people are depending on her to do those acts.

The wartime conscientious objector cannot wait until her platoon is in the thick of a firefight and her sergeant says “go attack that bunker,” to express her belief that she feels that killing in wartime is morally wrong and that she feels she cannot perform that act.

And the pharmacist or health care professional cannot wait until a patient says “I need an abortion” (or “I need birth control pills”) to make known her opposition to those acts. She must let her employer know her restrictions ahead of time, or she is shirking her own obligation.

There is a strong moral case to be made for respecting the deeply held beliefs of conscientious objectors. But the objector cannot avoid her own responsibility, which is to make her objections known before putting herself into a situation where others are depending on her to perform actions which she finds objectionable.

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23 Responses to Abortion, Conscientious Objectors, and Timing

  1. danithew on April 28, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    Bryce’s Steve-bot coding is workin’ a bit slow right now:

    http://www.millennialstar.org/index.php/2005/04/21/jennings_1_martha_beck_100#c6097

  2. Steve Evans on April 28, 2005 at 3:43 pm

    It wavers of the brink of poachdom, but Kaimi’s waiver analysis is a different tack than I would take. Rather, I would view the situation of one of assuming specified roles and responsibilities as a representative of an organization, when acting as such. I think we’d all agree that if someone came up to the Nurse after church and ask, there’d be no problem. Why not? Because the nurse is not at work, not speaking for the hospital, and not acting in her position. It’s akin to representation of a client, in my view. When we take on such roles, there are responsibilities and directives for behavior that come with the territory. In a sense, we cease to be individualized actors.

    I don’t think waiver works, because it fails to account for all the other behaviors we do as part of such occupations. All it does is say that we’ve let go of certain aspects of our lives, and that strikes me as a partial view.

  3. Kaimi on April 28, 2005 at 4:06 pm

    That’s a good way to put it, Steve. The waiver of one’s own ideas is part of the representation / agency relationship. You’re not hired to do your own thing — whatever that is — but to do what your employer tells you.

    Thus, if your limits are different than those your employer might expect, it’s your obligation to make that known up front.

  4. ronin on April 28, 2005 at 4:23 pm

    Seem to be loosing some of the text – maybe needs to ne recoded?

  5. Jonathan Stone on April 28, 2005 at 5:40 pm

    I think a conscientious objector in the army is a pretty extreme example, and I have no sympathy for them if they are forced into battle against their will. The only purpose for maintaining a peacetime army is because you might need them to fight a war. There is no other reason for an army to exist. Nobody who has a moral objection to fighting in a war should ever join any position in the army which they would object to come wartime. I think doing so is cheating the nation out of tax money.

    That doesn’t mean a soldier who enlists at peacetime has to like going to war; he just can’t act like he should be exempt from it. Yes, there are duties to perform in the army during peacetime, but they only exist for the purpose of having a functioning army during wartime.

    On the other hand, a nurse or a counselor who objects to recommending or referring abortions is in a different situation. Between abortion-related patients, there is much positive work to be done, independent of abortion. The purpose of their job is not to be on call, treading water until it is time to perform an abortion. If it is, they shouldn’t take the job in the first place. A conscientious objector soldier is more like an abortion doctor who gets paid for going to the clinic every day, then decides he should be exempted when a patient shows up.

  6. Seth Rogers on April 28, 2005 at 6:59 pm

    I remember a couple years ago there was a big stink about this in Provo over a guy who backed out of a golf tournament because it was on Sunday. Of course, there was a minor media circus. Most of my neighbors rallied around the golfer saying what a brave thing he did.

    Maybe so. But I also call it rude, disorganized and inconsiderate behavior.

    The guy knew that the tournament was on Sunday, yet he still participated in all the events right up to the eleventh hour when all the event organizers had invested a lot of time effort and money into his participation. And then, poof! “Sorry guys, I just remembered I’m a Mormon.”

    Bad form.

  7. Derek on April 28, 2005 at 7:06 pm

    Wouldn’t it would be unethical for any nurse who has really strong opinions either in favor or against abortion to participate in the abortion process, except as an advocate for one side or the other?

    What would a trial be like if only one side was able to give their argument?

  8. LRC on April 28, 2005 at 7:18 pm

    How many Conscientious Objectors actually join the Armed Forces willingly? Don’t they usually use their status as C.O.’s to avoid being drafted (or, in dire need, to avoid combat positions)? Sure, there are some folks who train and train and then decide they can’t kill folks, but that’s different than starting out as a C.O. and joining anyway.

    Seems to me that if people know they cannot support abortions, they should seek jobs where they won’t be put in the position of having to offer them (how many urologists or podiatrists need to know about abortion referrals? how many Ob-Gyn’s need to know about abortion referrals?). Chances are that if you’re working in women’s health, the abortion issue will come up and you need to be prepared to deal with it in an ethical and medically responsible way. If you can’t do that because of your strong position for or against, you need to find a different field of practice or learn to make tough decisions which may require setting aside your own moral and political agenda in order to put the patients’ needs first every day.

  9. Bryce I on April 28, 2005 at 8:37 pm

    Didn’t I make this same argument somewhere else?

    Anyway, read Leonard Pitts, who also makes the same argument, using soldiers and pharamcists as examples.. (registration required)

  10. Mark B. on April 28, 2005 at 9:10 pm

    Seth’s comment about the golf tournament brings back some memories–it was Johnny Miller’s son who forfeited the final round of the match-play tournament because it was to be held on Sunday. Perhaps he didn’t think that he could win the preliminary rounds, sort of like BYU’s basketball team when the NCAA put them into a bracket that would have had them playing their fourth game on a Sunday–the NCAA committee said publicly that they simply made a mistake, but my money is on their really thinking: “No way that lousy team is going to get by those first three opponents, so why worry?”

    So, he played inexplicably well in those first rounds, and ended up ‘stuck’ in the final which was to be Sunday. His predicament wasn’t simply “Gee, I didn’t realize that the tournament was on a Sunday,” since the first several rounds were played on days other than Sunday.

  11. Seth Rogers on April 28, 2005 at 9:45 pm

    Well, I guess I needn’t throw things at him if ever I meet him then.

  12. Rosalynde Welch on April 29, 2005 at 9:03 am

    When conscience is invoked in a situation like this, it almost always works to arbitrate between competing obligations. The competition between moral obligation to church and social obligation to state is the most familiar version of the competition–as in the polygamy issue in our own history. In the case of the pharmacist dispensing the morning after pill, or the nurse providing abortion information, the competing obligations aren’t so starkly organized: the moral obligation to church is almost undoubtedly on one side, and on the other could be either a contractual obligation to employer, or an ethical obligation to the client.

  13. Mark N. on April 29, 2005 at 12:45 pm

    If you don’t want to go to war and shoot people, don’t join the army; if you don’t want to give referrals to abortion clinics, don’t be a nurse.

    Of course, the government wants to turn the war/army situation into just that simplistic a scenario. It has no tolerance at all for those who see the necessity of a standing defensive army and who join the armed forces in the understanding that the government won’t suddenly turn them into offensive soldiers, which is how some view our actions in Iraq. Soldiers who attempt to claim that the war in Iraq is immoral, and cite the Nuremburg principle that soldiers who are commanded to do the immoral have every right (and even a duty) to disobey those orders, are being given a very short shrift from the U.S. Federal Government these days.

    The government doesn’t want to hear from anyone who’ll attempt to make the case that sometimes fighting a war is necessary. They expect you to be an all or nothing citizen: either you always have to believe that war is evil and that you will always refuse to fight, or you have to believe that if war is ever justified, you’ll always side with your government when they tell you that the current one is justified, and when they tell you to jump, your only response will be to ask “How high?” Thinking individuals who insist on weighing the merits of every individual case need not apply.

  14. Seth Rogers on April 30, 2005 at 2:46 pm

    The problem with the American concept of war is that it is too absolutist.

    Americans have historically avoided war unless it was either:

    a) for the preservation of the homeland

    b) part of some great crusade (like Woodrow Wilson’s portrayal of World War I)

    This is why the idea of a “citizen army” was somewhat problematic. The citizens couldn’t be counted on to fight for a “limited war.”

    The Korean War is a perfect example. That war was fought not in defense of US soil, or as a crusade against the “evil empire” of communism, but was an attempt to maintain world stability and the status quo. For most of the conflict it wasn’t even called a war, it was called a “police action” (although the thousands who died in Korea suggest otherwise).

    But crusades are all-or-nothing. You can’t just settle for pushing the invading North Korean army out of South Korea, you must then liberate North Korea from communist influence. Then, when China comes to the defense of North Korea, you cannot simply fight the Chinese in North Korea, you must blockade the Chinese ports, bomb Chinese airfields, and destroy China’s warmaking capacity. Then when Russia decides to get involved, you have to take them on as well. Ultimately, you end up with a nuclear holocaust.

    Truman understood this, which is why he refused to “sound the trumpet” calling America to the crusade against evil. The war must never extend beyond Korea.

    The ugly truth about being a superpower is that you have to fight a lot of these ugly little conflicts. If America wishes to impose its vision of a better tommorrow upon the world, it must be prepared to do so with the blood of its soldiers. The same has been required of every world empire. From Roman legionaires fighting in the forests of France, to Queen Victoria’s sons dying on the plains of Afghanistan, to dead Marines being dragged through the streets of Somalia, empires require their men to die in obscure places their families have never heard of.

    This requires a professional army. Soldiers who are willing to fight and die when they are told to regardless of whether they understand the reasons. America cannot hope to police world affairs and impose its values on the world without these kind of soldiers.

    This is why post #13’s idea of a “standing defensive army” is hopelessly outdated for what the US has become and the role it must fulfill in world affairs.

    If you maintain the view of war that Mark N.’s hypothetical citizens do, you have no business joining a “professional army.” You should either get a civilian job, or sign up for the National Guard.

    Incidentally, I feel that one of the most inexcusable things Pres. Bush did in Iraq was “drafting” the National Guard. Iraq is not what the National Guard was intended for. It is Mark N.’s “standing defensive army.” If Bush couldn’t invade Iraq without the National Guard, he shouldn’t have invaded. It was an incredible betrayal of the trust of the members of the National Guard and their families.

    If a National Guardsman wants to “conscientiously object” he or she will have my full support. But the professional branches of the army are another matter entirely. I expect the Marines to go and die wherever their government tells them to, no questions asked. That’s what they exist for.

    ‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
    Was there a man dismay’d ?
    Not tho’ the soldier knew
    Some one had blunder’d:
    Their’s not to make reply,
    Their’s not to reason why,
    Their’s but to do and die:
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson
    Charge of the Light Brigade

  15. Mark N. on April 30, 2005 at 9:44 pm

    America cannot hope to police world affairs and impose its values on the world without these kind of soldiers.

    An America that exists to “impose its values on the world” is an America in cahoots with those spirits in the pre-mortal existence who sought to eliminate the agency of man. Fortunately, God knows that for the test of mortality to be a fair one, no values must be imposed upon anyone.

    Maybe we should start up a new and improved Mormon Battalion, more willing and able to impose an LDS viewpoint on the world. I mean, if it’s good for America, it ought to be good for the Church, right? ;-)

  16. Seth Rogers on May 1, 2005 at 3:14 pm

    Yes, certainly it would be ideal if we could all sit down and nicely discuss things and get people to see the value of not torturing the political opposition, or killing ethnic minorities, or allowing the peasants to starve.

    Until you can suggest a better alternative, I am definitely willing to countenance the use of force in certain situations. I had absolutely no problem with sending troops into Somalia to suppress the rival gangs and warlords and deliver food to starving people. I also had no real objection to putting troops into Afghanistan to remove the Taliban. For lack of better options, yes, I am in favor of the use of force. Did you have a better idea?

    Or perhaps you are more in favor of isolationism?

    Of course, this conversation risks turning into threadjacking …

  17. Mark N. on May 1, 2005 at 10:30 pm

    Until you can suggest a better alternative, I am definitely willing to countenance the use of force in certain situations… For lack of better options, yes, I am in favor of the use of force.

    To the point of willingly offering up your offspring to do the dirty work of imposing American values upon the rest of the world?

    My wife has a cousin in Iraq, who, within a matter of days after his arrival, got one of his feet wounded in an explosion set off by the “insurgents”. I don’t know what his status is at this point, but if he’s going to have to spend the rest of his life on crutches, or with an artificial limb, I’m not sure at all that the cost of his foot is worth what we’re supposedly doing over there.

    According to the early newspapers published by the Church, which can be found in the Gospelink software, “mind your own business” used to be considered by some to be the “Mormon motto”. I can’t help but feel that if America would simply learn to mind its own business, instead of finding dictators who are (temporarily) in favor of American foreign policy (aka American business interests) and putting them in charge in various locations throughout the world, we wouldn’t have to worry at all about people hijacking our planes and crashing them into our skyscrapers.

  18. Seth Rogers on May 2, 2005 at 8:27 am

    Incidentally, I never said I was in favor of what Bush is doing in Iraq.

  19. annegb on May 2, 2005 at 10:51 am

    I think nurses do a lot more than give referrals to abortion clinics. That is a faulty argument.

  20. alamojag on May 2, 2005 at 3:14 pm

    As someone who has had the opportunity to talk with a “concsientious objector”, I can tell you how the Air Force, at least deals with them.

    First of all, they still get on the plane to go overseas. Being a CO does not mean you get to stay home while your buddies fill the slack your absence leaves. It just means you don’t handle or operate a weapon. You do a desk job behind the lines, if one is available.

    Next, your claim to CO status is examined thoroughly. The first step is usually with the JAG to see whether you meet the basic definition of a CO, which is that you have a deep-seated belief against war or violence, or with your participation in it. It does not count if you don’t believe in the current war. That falls more in the line of desertion.

    The next step is counseling with the Chaplain. This can be one, or several sessions. Again, this is to see how “deep seated” your beliefs against war or violence are, where they came from, whether you can articulate them. The bias in this investigation is in favor of supporting CO status.

    Finally, if your CO status is verified, you receive an honorable discharge and are sent back home. If not, you are sent back to your unit. My limited experience was with CO’s whose status was verified and then they were discharged.

  21. Mark N. on May 3, 2005 at 6:56 pm

    It does not count if you don’t believe in the current war.

    I think that’s reprehensible. It’s one thing to agree to defend your country in a time of war, but it’s another thing altogether when your Commander-In-Chief sends you off (supposedly) on a mission of nation-building, which he pledged not to do during his first election campaign. There are righteous reasons for going to war, and there are probably far more unrighteous reasons to go to war. When the government refuses to allow you to make that distinction, something is seriously wrong.

    And then they start to wonder why they’re unable to make their recruiting goals for a third consecutive month. It seems that potential recruits sense that their government has broken faith with them. And when there comes a time when they will really be needed, they won’t be there, because the government could no longer be trusted.

  22. A. Greenwood on May 3, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    “‘It does not count if you don’t believe in the current war.’

    I think that’s reprehensible.”

    You realize this is a country we’re running here, right? Not an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

    I’ve got a long list of reprehensible things we should be worried about, and volunteer soldiers fighting in wars they disagree with isn’t even making the footnotes.

  23. Mark N. on May 3, 2005 at 7:47 pm

    You realize this is a country we’re running here, right?

    I’d be happy if we were willing to settle for running a country these days. Instead, we seem to be determined to run the world.