– Objectors to abortion need stronger conscience protections in federal law, the U.S. bishops have said in a letter supporting a bill being considered by Congress.
“While existing federal laws already protect conscientious objection to abortion in theory, this protection has not proved effective in practice,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said.
They said the proposed Conscience Protection Act of 2017 is essential to protect health care providers’ fundamental rights and ensure that they are not “forced by government to help destroy innocent unborn children.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Archbishop William Lori, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, backed the legislation in a February 8 letter to Congress.
They said the bill would benefit the “great majority” of obstetricians and gynecologists who are unwilling to perform abortions. They said Catholic and other religious health care providers are “especially at risk” of coercive policies related to abortion.
The bishops also invoked medical ethics traditions such as the Hippocratic Oath, which rejected abortion and, in their words, helped define medicine as “an ethical vocation dedicated to the life and well-being of one’s patients.”
The conscience protection bill is sponsored by U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Reps. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.).
Lankford said the legislation “will ensure that health providers have the ability to defend their religious or moral beliefs without fear of discrimination.”
“This bill is needed to give health care providers the right to provide medical care without violating their deeply held beliefs,” the senator said on February 3. “Americans have very different views about abortion, but we should not force anyone to participate in it or provide coverage.”
The U.S. bishops said the bill will “address the deficiencies that block effective enforcement of existing laws” and would establish a private right of civil action that would allow “victims of discrimination to defend their own rights in court.”
They said mandating involvement in abortion would undermine health care providers’ civil rights and limit health care access for everyone.
Backers of the bill said organizations that are compelled by state laws to provide abortion coverage at present only have one line of recourse: filing a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights.
This process has sometimes failed.
In 2014, the State of California required that health care plans cover abortions. The requirement lacked religious exemptions for Catholic and other religious organizations with objections to abortion.
The California requirement came in response to the efforts of two Catholic universities, Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University, which had sought health care plans that did not include elective abortion coverage.
However, some faculty members objected to the exclusion of the coverage and their allies sought state intervention.
In June 2016 the HHS ruled that California’s requirement was permitted, a ruling that critics said violated federal law like the Weldon Amendment, which bars the government from discriminating against health care entities that refuse to participate in abortion.
The ruling drew strong objections.
“Forcing organizations and individuals to violate their religious convictions is a threat to fundamental human liberties,” Edward Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said June 22, 2016.
The Conscience Protection Act of 2017 would provide another remedy for those coerced into performing abortions or providing coverage for abortions in health plans, backers of the bill said.