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Health care conscience protections return to Congress

WASHINGTON (BP) — The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other organizations again are urging Congress to approve legislation to protect the conscience rights of pro-life health care providers.

The Conscience Protection Act (CPA) — one of the ERLC’s legislative priorities in its 2018 agenda — would bar government discrimination against health care workers and facilities that object to being involved in abortion, as well as health insurers that refuse to provide coverage of the lethal procedure. The bill will provide victims of discrimination with the ability to defend their rights in court in a first for federal laws to protect health care conscience rights.

Supporters of the bill are calling for inclusion of the CPA in a new omnibus federal spending bill, which could be voted on soon by the House of Representatives. The temporary spending resolution now in effect expires March 23.

ERLC President Russell Moore told Baptist Press the CPA is necessary to protect freedom of conscience on 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,” Moore said in written comments for BP. “My prayer is that members of Congress would stand up for human dignity and make clear that the federal government has no authority to dictate to the conscience.”

The CPA is necessary, according to the ERLC, because the Obama administration refused to enforce the Weldon Amendment, a measure that protects conscience rights. The amendment, an annual rider since 2004 to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spending measure, bars funds for a federal program — or state or local government receiving federal funds — 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.”

The proposal would establish in federal law the Weldon and Hyde amendments, which now must be approved yearly as riders to spending bills. The Hyde Amendment bans federal funding of abortion. The CDA also would enable a victim of discrimination to file a civil suit without submitting a complaint to HHS.

While the Trump administration’s HHS has acted to protect freedom of conscience, supporters of the CPA contend the bill is still needed.

In a March 8 letter, Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., sponsor of the legislation, led more than 100 fellow House members in urging the Republican leadership to include the CPA in the latest spending measure. Even state governments are practicing discrimination against conscientious objectors, Black and the others wrote. They cited a California order — as well as similar ones in New York and Oregon — that requires all insurance plans to cover abortion, including those of churches and religious charities.

Black also joined nurse Sandra Rojas in a March 9 opinion piece for The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that urged passage of a spending bill that would include the CPA. Rojas lost her job in 2015 after a new policy required her to provide abortion-inducing drugs and make abortion referrals. Winnebago County Health Department in Rockford, Ill., fired her after 18 years of service when she conscientiously objected to participating in abortion in any form.

Every American “should be free to live consistent with their beliefs without fear of government punishment,” Rojas and Black, who also has served as a nurse, wrote in The Hill. “While we may not all agree on abortion, we should agree that no doctor or nurse should be forced out of the medical profession due to their beliefs about abortion. Our commitment to ‘do no harm’ shouldn’t disqualify us from serving in health care.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., sponsor of the CDA in the Senate, tweeted March 7, “Congress should pass the Conscience Protection Act to ensure that #ProLife health providers have the right to defend their beliefs w/o fear of discrimination. Americans have very different views on abortion, but we should not force anyone to participate in it.”

Travis Wussow, the ERLC’s general counsel and vice president for public policy, said the CPA “is a top priority for our organization and the pro-life community as a whole.”

“Protections for these conscience rights have been a longstanding source of agreement, and their increasingly common violation is a tragedy and outrage that needs to be remedied,” Wussow told BP in a written statement. “This is a critical issue that we are encouraging members of Congress to prioritize as they continue forward in negotiations.”

The House has approved the CPA in the past without the Senate providing approval. Representatives voted in support of the bill in 2016, then passed it in September 2017 as part of a consolidated spending package. The ERLC called for Congress in late 2017 to include the CPA in the spending bill.

President Trump has reportedly indicated his support for the CPA.

On Jan. 18, HHS announced the establishment of a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division to protect freedom of conscience and religion more effectively. HHS issued in early October last year new rules to protect objectors to the abortion/contraception mandate instituted under Obama. A 2011 regulation to help implement the health care reform law required employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions.