The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and pro-life allies are calling for enactment of protections for the conscience rights of health care providers before 2018.
Photo by Lauren Konkol
Sen. James Lankford, a Southern Baptist, speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference Nov. 8 in support of the Conscience Protection Act, while other members of Congress and nurses who were victims of abortion discrimination look on.
The Conscience Protection Act (CPA) – one of the ERLC’s legislative priorities in its 2017 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 – which would be a first for federal laws that protect health care conscience rights.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the CPA in September as part of a consolidated spending package, but the Senate version of the legislation does not include the conscience measure. The ERLC and its pro-life allies are urging congressional leadership to make the CPA a priority in negotiations over the spending package. President Donald Trump has promised his support of the CPA, according to the office of Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a key pro-life leader.
ERLC President Russell Moore and Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called Nov. 8 for all Americans to support conscience rights.
In an opinion piece in USA Today, Moore and Dolan wrote, “On one of our most divisive issues, we have an opportunity to unite across political, religious and regional divides to agree that those who respect the life of the unborn child have a right to act on that belief, that we are not second-class citizens.
“Even those who disagree with us on abortion should see that respecting the right to choose not to be involved in abortion is part of being ‘pro-choice,’” said Moore and Dolan, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-life Activities. “[W]e find it hard to imagine how those who call themselves ‘pro-choice’ could deny another the choice of following his or her 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 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.”
In a document in support of the CPA, the ERLC cited two examples of violations of federal conscience protections in the last eight years:
- In 2009, Cathy DeCarlo, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, was threatened with the loss of her job if she did not participate in the abortion of a 22-week-old unborn child. The hospital receives federal funds.
- In 2011, HHS denied a grant renewal to the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services because it would not pledge to refer human trafficking survivors to health care providers that cover abortion.
In a Capitol Hill news conference Nov. 8, DeCarlo told reporters, according to a release from Smith’s office, “I’ll never forget that day as I watched in horror as the doctor dismembered and removed the baby’s bloody limbs, and then I had to account for all the pieces. … I never thought in America I would be forced to violate my conscience in this way.”
Also speaking at the news conference, Smith’s office reported, were Sandra Mendoza, who lost her nursing job after 18 years at the Winnebago County Health Department in Rockford, Ill., when she refused to assist in an abortion, and Fe Vinoya, who was warned she could lose her job as a nurse at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., if she did not take part in an abortion.
Smith told reporters at the news conference, according to his prepared remarks, “Health care is about saving life, eradicating disease, mitigating disability – not taking life. At the very least, health care providers should have the right to not be coerced into facilitating abortion. Coercive anti-conscience policies are not only highly unethical but blatantly illegal. The law couldn’t be clearer on this matter.”
The CPA’s sponsors – Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. – were among other members of Congress who spoke at the news conference.
Afterward, Lankford – a Southern Baptist – tweeted, “Honored to #StandWithNurses today. Congress should pass the #ConscienceProtectionAct to protect health care providers from gov’t discrimination if they decline to participate in abortions. This should not be controversial.”
The push for enactment of the CPA comes about a month after the Trump administration acted in another area to restore conscience rights weakened under President Obama.
HHS announced Oct. 6 the issuance of 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.
The new regulations exempt from the mandate non-church-related, nonprofit organizations that object based on their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
The House approved the CPA in 2016, but the Senate failed to act on it.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)