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House approves bill protecting providers opposed to abortion

WASHINGTON (BP)–The House of Representatives voted Sept. 25 to clarify that the government cannot discriminate against healthcare professionals and entities that object to providing abortion services.

Passage of the Abortion Non-discrimination Act came in a 229-189 vote, with 37 Democrats joining 192 Republicans in the majority. Twenty-four GOP members voted with 164 Democrats and an independent against the measure.

The Senate, however, is not expected to act on the bill before it adjourns. The target date for adjournment is Oct. 11.

The legislation amends the Public Health Act to make clear the federal government and any state or local government that receives federal funds are barred from discriminating against any medical professional or entity that declines to perform, pay for or provide coverage of an abortion. It clarifies healthcare entities include hospitals, provider-sponsored organizations, health maintenance organizations and insurance plans.

Supporters of the bill, H.R. 4691, said it was necessary to confirm for the courts that Congress’ intent in a more basic 1996 measure was to protect all such healthcare entities.

Abortion-rights advocates charged the bill is not a clarification but a restriction of the right to choose abortion. The legislation is “a sweeping federal gag rule allowing any healthcare entity — including hospitals, health insurance corporations or HMOs — to deny women access to reproductive health services and information. Today’s action puts the federal government, rather than medical professionals, in charge of what information and services women receive,” said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R.-Fla., denied such charges during floor debate.

“The original law was intended — whatever happened to legislative intent for crying out loud — the original law was intended to apply to the broadest definition of healthcare entities,” Bilirakis said. “[T]his bill is really a very simple technical correction. It is not a massive expansion or a policy to limit access to health care for women. On the contrary, this bill ensures that all facilities will continue to be free to provide the types of services that they find appropriate, and it will not force facilities to close because of fundamental objections to elective medical procedures.”

Shannon Royce of the Southern Baptist Convention called the vote a “victory for conscience.”

“Government should not be in the business of forcing people or institutions to violate their consciences or core values in the name of ‘choice,'” said Royce, director for government relations of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The Senate should quickly pass this important legislation that guarantees freedom of conscience for all health-care providers and entities.”

David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, said the measure “provides important protections for the conscience rights of healthcare professionals and providers. Most Americans support the common-sense principle of this bill — that no one should be forced to violate their conscience by being coerced to take part in abortion.”

The bill’s backers cited recent or potential government action they said demonstrated the need for clearer protection for medical entities, including:

— The Alaska Supreme Court ruled some community hospitals must do second-trimester abortions against their will.

— The St. Petersburg, Fla., city council required a private hospital to depart from a nonprofit consortium because the association had a pro-life policy.

— A hospital merger in New Hampshire fell apart after abortion-rights advocates intervened with the state attorney general.

— NARAL’s Maryland affiliate is conducting a “Hospital Provider Project” designed to result in hospitals being required to provide abortion services.

Some prominent public officials have assisted the efforts of abortion-rights advocates to expand access to abortion.

In early September, Gov. Gray Davis of California signed into law a bill mandating that residency programs for obstetricians and gynecologists provide training in doing abortions. There is an exemption based on religion and conscience for individuals and institutions.

At the behest of NARAL, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed a policy change earlier in the year that requires ob/gyn residents in the city’s public hospitals to receive abortion training. The change went into effect in July. Residents may opt out for moral or religious reasons.

NARAL lobbied for the change because of the declining number of abortion providers and the opportunity for increased access to abortion nationwide, since one in seven doctors is trained in New York City, said Kelli Conlin, executive director of NARAL’s New York office, according to an Associated Press report.