The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) again is calling for passage of a bill to protect the freedom of conscience of pro-life, health care workers.
The Conscience Protection Act (CPA) 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 for the lethal procedure. The bill also will provide alleged victims of discrimination with the ability to defend their rights in court.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., reintroduced the legislation in late February, about a month after the ERLC included the measure in its policy agenda priorities for 2021. Lankford, a Southern Baptist, has sponsored the CPA in previous sessions of Congress, and the ERLC has made the proposal one of its priorities in recent years.
The CPA is needed to provide long-term protection for the conscience rights of pro-life health care professionals, the ERLC and other supporters say. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under President Donald Trump issued in May 2019 a final regulation that enforced 25 federal laws protecting conscience rights that were not enforced by the Obama administration. A federal judge in New York City vacated the rule about six months later, however, and the issue is pending before two federal appeals courts.
“No health care professional should have to compromise their deeply-held beliefs in order to administer care,” ERLC President Russell Moore said when the CPA was reintroduced. While the 2019 HHS conscience rule provided clarity, “legislation is needed to establish stability in this area of the federal law,” he said.
The ERLC supports the bill “because it would provide people their day in court if their conscience rights have been violated,” Moore said in written comments.
The CPA, Lankford said in a written statement upon reintroducing the proposal, “provides doctors, nurses, and other health care workers permanent protection from being discriminated against by employers if they choose to follow their conscience and do not wish to perform, participate in, or provide an abortion.
“No health care worker should be forced to choose between their jobs and their conscience. It shouldn’t be controversial.”
Reports of pro-life health care workers who have been discriminated against have included nurses who have been forced to assist with abortions in order to keep their jobs.
The effort to gain approval of the CPA in this congressional session is a longshot. The House of Representatives – controlled at the time by Republicans – passed the measure in separate sessions, as a stand-alone bill in 2016 and as part of a consolidated spending package in 2017. The Senate, however, failed to approve the legislation.
Congress and the White House, now controlled by Democrats, are highly unlikely to support the proposal. When the House approved a stand-alone CPA by 245-182 in 2016, only three Democrats joined nearly all Republicans in voting for the measure.
Twenty-six other Republicans are cosponsors of the CPA, which would affect not only the federal government but state and local governments that receive federal funds.
National and state organizations also supporting the bill include the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, Concerned Women for America, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Family Research Council, First Liberty Institute, March for Life, National Right to Life, Susan B. Anthony List, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Oklahomans for Life.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)