WASHINGTON, DC (BP) – The U.S. House of Representatives approved Wednesday (July 13) a bill to protect the conscience rights of individuals and institutions that refuse to be involved in abortion. The House voted 245-182 almost totally along party lines for the Conscience Protection Act, which bars the government from discriminating against health-care providers with objections to participating in or providing coverage for abortion. The Senate has yet to vote on the legislation. Pro-life and religious liberty advocates applauded the House's action.
Southern Baptist ethicist and religious freedom advocate Russell Moore told Baptist Press he was "very thankful that the House approved this common-sense legislation," describing its passage as "an important step in protecting freedom of conscience when it comes to abortion." "It is completely unjust that any American doctor or clinic would be punished for holding to their beliefs on the sanctity of human life," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in written comments. "My prayer is that this bill would defend Americans who stand up for human dignity for all and remind the federal government that it has no authority to dictate to the conscience."
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said in a written statement, "For decades, conscience has been an area of public policy consensus. Even those who support the right to abortion used to agree that Americans who object to abortion should not be forced to participate in it or subsidize its costs. That longstanding consensus is now under attack from the Obama Administration and others on the left."
The House's passage of the bill came on the heels of an Obama administration decision that allows the state of California to force even churches to cover abortions in their health insurance plans. The Department of Health and Human Services announced June 21 it had rejected complaints from churches and others that California had violated federal law by requiring their health plans to pay for elective abortions. The Conscience Protection Act cites California's mandate in language explaining the need for the legislation. It also points to a similar requirement by the state of New York.
Matt Bowman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a written release, "Because the Obama administration has violated pro-life conscience laws so that now even churches, in many instances, must pay for abortion insurance, this bill has become necessary." Pro-life nurses also have been forced to assist with abortions in order to keep their jobs, according to reports in recent years.
The bill prohibits the federal government -- as well as state and local governments that receive health-related, federal funds -- from penalizing or retaliating against doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals who decline to perform or refer for abortions. It also protects the conscience rights of such organizations as hospitals or other health-care facilities, social services providers, health training programs and group health plans. The measure includes a "private right of action" that enables alleged victims of discrimination to defend themselves in court. The legislation specifies previous measures Congress has passed to guard health-care conscience rights but notes none offer a "private right of action."
Critics of California's mandate and the Obama administration decision in support of it say the state regulation violates the Weldon Amendment, an annual rider since 2004 to the HHS appropriations measure that bars funds for a federal program or state or local government that "subjects any institutional or individual health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions."
Only three Democrats supported the bill, while a lone Republican opposed it. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas, Daniel Lipinski of Illinois and Collin Peterson of Minnesota cast votes for the measure. Rep. Richard Hanna of New York voted against it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.