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March 31, 2016
We are writing as chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, to support essential legislation protecting the fundamental rights of health care providers.
Reps. John Fleming, M.D. (R-LA) and Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) have introduced the Conscience Protection Act of 2016 (H.R. 4828), to ensure that those providing much-needed health care and health coverage can continue to do so without being forced by government to help destroy innocent unborn children.
H.R. 4828 is based closely on the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act that was first approved by the House in 2002, and more recently has been part of the House's proposed Labor/HHS appropriations bills for the last three years. The new bill adds rules of construction that emphasize the proposal's modest scope and respond to past mistaken objections.
The need for clarification of federal law cannot be doubted. While existing federal laws already protect conscientious objection to abortion in theory, this protection has not proved effective in practice. These laws can only be enforced by complaint to the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which -- despite repeated questions and objections from Congress -- has allowed valid complaints to languish, sometimes for years, without resolution. Even HHS itself has discriminated against those who cannot in conscience facilitate abortions, as when it implemented a new "strong preference" for grantees willing to refer human trafficking victims solely to health care providers who favor abortion. And while the Hyde/Weldon amendment to the annual Labor/HHS appropriations acts has forbidden such governmental discrimination since 2004, state officials have violated that amendment with impunity and claimed that any effort to enforce it would be subject to legal challenge.
The Conscience Protection Act will address the deficiencies that block effective enforcement of existing laws, most notably by establishing a private right of action allowing victims of discrimination to defend their own rights in court.
While Catholic and other religious health care providers are especially at risk from coercive abortion policies, we should recall that rejection of abortion is an integral part of the Hippocratic oath that for many centuries has helped define medicine as a profession, an ethical vocation dedicated to the life and well-being of one's patients. Today the great majority of ob/gyns remain unwilling to perform abortions. Even the U.S. Supreme Court, which legalized abortion nationwide, has admitted that abortion's role in destroying unborn life makes it "inherently different from other medical procedures," and said the government may help "encourage childbirth" over abortion. Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297, 325 (1980). When government instead mandates involvement in abortion as a condition for being allowed to provide life-affirming health care services, it not only undermines the widely acknowledged civil rights of health care providers but also limits access to good health care for American women and men.
In short, whether you approach this issue out of respect for defenseless human life, for religious liberty, for "freedom of choice" on abortion, or for the well-being of our health care system, we urge you to support and co-sponsor the Conscience Protection Act and help ensure its approval by the House of Representatives this year.
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