Saturday, February 11, 2012

From Contraception to Curriculum: Matters of Conscience?

I’ve been hearing a lot about conscience this week. In the national discussion regarding President Obama’s new plans for the provision of contraception, I’ve heard radio commentators and read news reports about the importance of conscience, namely that certain religious groups should be able to refrain from providing contraception coverage because they principally disagree with it. At the state level this week (New Hampshire) regarding HB 1424-FN, I’ve heard elected officials describe the importance of allowing parents to remove their child from any school or curriculum to which they are conscientiously opposed. I’m left wondering just what the role of personal conscience is when it comes to private (here the health or family planning of a woman and her partner) and public benefits (here the success of schools that are democratically run and their missions).

Surely we value the principled stands of many people who disagree with the dictates or actions of large or powerful groups. In my mind I quickly think of conscientious objectors to war as well as the many Amish families near where I was raised in Ohio. Even though I served my eight years as a military spouse and even though I intentionally chose to leave my rural farming community, I can understand and respect many of their beliefs and can understand why they might resist certain public policies or educational practices. I can allow that my views and the dominant ways of America should not be forced upon everyone in all cases. But how do we, as the public tasked with protecting the weak and vulnerable amongst us (whether that be some women susceptible to significant dangers posed by unwanted pregnancy or the children of parents who shelter them from public school teachings), decide whose conscientiousness is worth accepting and whose is not? What basis do we use to determine the legitimacy of one’s principles of disagreement and whether being forced to violate those principles is of a significant hardship? When, if ever, is it in the best interest of a person to have their conscience intentionally challenged?

HB 1424 potentially enshrines the protection of parents’ conscience into public school policy in my state, regardless of the justification for parents’ views or discussion of the impact on their children. I’m thinking hard about just what parents might object to (perhaps the teaching of evolution or the absence of Bible study—as indicated by two other bills currently under debate in New Hampshire). And I’m thinking about criteria that might help public schools determine instances when those parents’ views should be accepted and when they hould be denied. I welcome thoughts from others who might be considering similar situations.

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