On Conscience Rights: There Oughta Be a Law

By Richard Doerflinger

December 9, 2011

I used to think we were a nation committed to freedom of conscience. Heck, I used to think we had a body of law effectively defending that freedom. After the events of the past few months, I'm not so sure. Consider:

  • The California Department of Managed Health Care has insisted that Catholic health care systems in the state may not provide health coverage to their employees unless they include abortion. When the systems invoked federal conscience laws forbidding such coercion, state officials basically laughed and said those laws would never be enforced against them.
  • Twelve nurses have sued a state-run medical center in New Jersey that tried to force them to assist in abortions against their moral and religious convictions. The hospital has replied that the nurses don't even have a right to sue in court, because federal conscience laws on abortion don't explicitly give them that right.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced that soon almost all private health plans in the United States must cover a full range of sterilization and contraceptives, including drugs that can cause an early abortion, whether the people purchasing the plans want to buy that coverage or not. The Department issued a "religious exemption" from the mandate that protects no individuals, and does not even cover most Catholic institutions.
  • This same Department recently denied a grant proposal from the U.S. bishops' department of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) to implement a federal program serving victims of human trafficking. At a December 1st congressional hearing, it was revealed that MRS consistently received the highest acclaim from government reviewers for running this program in an exemplary manner for the last five years – and that its latest proposal received far better scores from HHS's career professionals than most competitors. Nevertheless, political appointees at HHS, including a close advisor to Secretary Sebelius, gave the grant to three other organizations, including two groups with such low scores that the in-house experts recommended they be rejected. The officials' reason? The Catholic entities couldn't guarantee that every female trafficking victim would be referred only to health care providers who help provide the "full range" of ob/gyn services such as elective abortions. Despite longstanding federal laws that forbid the government to discriminate against providers who don't take part in abortion, the HHS officials testified that they were told by their attorneys they were obeying all applicable laws.

Add one detail and you will see the whole picture: As interpreted by the Obama administration, victims of discrimination can defend their rights under current conscience laws only by appealing to HHS – the same department that is actively suppressing pro-life Americans' rights of conscience in these last two examples. See why the perpetrators in the first two examples aren't afraid of the law?

There is a solution. The Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA) would close loopholes in current law and provide clear support for victims' right to sue in court. The House of Representatives has included the text of ANDA in its draft Labor/HHS appropriations bill, expected to be one of the last bills passed at the end of this year – but pro-abortion members in House and Senate are trying to block it. You can tell them what you think about that by visiting the site of the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment (www.nchla.org) and acting on its latest alert on conscience rights. Who knows? You may help preserve your own local doctor's or hospital's right to provide care.

Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.To learn more about the Catholic bishops' activities on conscience protection, visit www.usccb.org/conscience.