Tollefsen lecture focuses on bioethics, constitution and conscience

CHARLESTON — Freedom of conscience in the health care field has become a hot-button issue in recent months.

Many people have raised concerns that the administration under President Barack Obama will repeal a “conscience rule” implemented in December by the former administration. The rule protects doctors, nurses and other health care workers who refuse to participate in procedures they consider morally wrong, such as abortion.

These issues make a lecture offered  April 20 on the campus of the Medical University of South Carolina all the more timely.

Christopher Tollefsen, a Catholic and professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, will speak on “Conscientious Objections: Freedom of Conscience and Religion for Healthcare Providers.”

The lecture is the second in an annual series on biomedical ethics sponsored by the Caritas Fellowship, a campus ministry at MUSC.

The series is organized by the Rev. Patrick Allen, priest associate at the Church of the Holy Communion, an Episcopal congregation in Charleston, and chaplain for the Caritas Fellowship.

Tollefsen was a 2005-06 visiting fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He has written two books, “Biomedical Research and Beyond: Expanding the Ethics of Inquiry” and, most recently, “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life,” with co-author Robert P. George. He edits the Catholic Studies in Bioethics series for Springer Publishing.

With Springer, he also edited “Artificial Nutrition and Hydration: The New Catholic Debate,” and “John Paul II’s Contribution to Catholic Bioethics.” He earned a doctorate from Emory University.

He, his wife and eight children are members of St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia. Tollefsen said he teaches classes on medical ethics and the philosophy of law at USC.

A professor for 14 years, Tollefsen has studied medical ethics for just over a decade, and has always been interested in political philosophy, especially the relationship between the state and “individuals who are trying to live good lives.”

“The nature of religion, the value of religion, the role of the state and the law in the lives of individuals — all these things come together when you look at conscience issues,” Tollefsen said in a recent telephone interview with The Miscellany.

He said the clash between state law and individual conscience has occurred in recent years not only with the conscience rule, but also in states where laws have been passed requiring hospitals to provide the Plan B emergency contraceptive pill for rape victims, and through other laws that require Catholic employers to provide contraceptive coverage in their benefits packages.

“I’m very much interested in not only what individuals and groups need to do to live good lives, but what the state needs to do to make that possible,” Tollefsen said. “The state goes wrong when it intrudes too deeply into people’s efforts to shape their lives according to conscience.”

However, he said, there are times when the state does need to step in, especially when people make conscience-driven decisions that cause great harm to others.

“There are people who do very bad things because they feel like they’ve been told to do this by conscience,” he said. “An example would be someone who kills an abortionist. Abortion is an evil, but in this case they might be acting on conscience but taking the law into their own hands. The state legitimately steps in to prevent that, just as it does in cases of religiously-motivated terror attacks.”

Tollefsen said issues of conflict between the state and conscience in the health care industry “really weren’t on the radar” when he first started his work in philosophy. He said these issues have become more prevalent recently because it seems that people don’t have an adequate concept of what conscience is or the role it plays in decision making.

“Conscience is not just whatever people feel like, or just whatever people happen to want,” he said. “If the state works with that concept, they are going to make mistakes. We need to start with the idea that conscience is a judgment of reason oriented toward truth.”

He said that the teachings of the church and other religiously based opinions on medical ethics are supported through much of the research he has done.

“In the most recent book, we have a very compelling argument against embryo destruction in research,” Tollefsen said. “Our research didn’t depend upon religious findings, but it showed that religious teaching on this matter is really rationally grounded in its objections to embryonic destruction.”

His studies in ethics have nurtured his faith, and Tollefsen said Catholic resources have also formed his perspectives on philosophy.

“I draw on resources from St. Thomas Aquinas to papal encyclicals and the documents of Vatican II,” he said. “Doing philosophy has itself led me to be a better Catholic and to understand my faith better. It’s helped me to understand the arguments that are behind some of the things the church teaches.”

As an example, he said it was only through his study of philosophical perspectives on the nature of human action and the good that human action can serve that led he and his wife to fully appreciate church teaching against contraception.

Tollefsen’s lecture will be held at 4 p.m. April 20 in St. Luke’s Chapel on the corner of Ashley and Bee streets on the MUSC campus. For details, visit