Upholding a Right Not to Kill

By Richard M. Doerflinger

April 29, 2014

Soon Congress will consider protecting conscience rights for health care providers, especially the right not to be forced to participate in abortion.

The issue comes up in several bills introduced this year.  The most ambitious of these, and the first to be considered – with votes likely the first week of May, is the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 3).  Besides permanently banning federal funding of abortion, it would forbid all federal agencies (and state and local governments receiving federal funds) to discriminate against health care providers who decline to provide, refer for or pay for abortions.   

Federal conscience laws have existed since 1973, but each has drawbacks that make it less effective than it could be.  Since 2004, for example, the Hyde/Weldon amendment to the Labor/HHS appropriations bill has forbidden governmental discrimination against pro-life health care providers.  But the amendment must be renewed each year; it only covers entities funded by that particular appropriations bill; and it does not have an enforcement mechanism allowing victims of discrimination to go to court to defend their rights. H.R. 3 remedies those defects.

This issue should be of fundamental importance to Catholics, as the survival of authentic Catholic health care is at stake. Catholic hospitals make up the largest network of nonprofit health care in the nation, providing higher quality care than secular and for-profit hospitals.  And this same moral commitment to the life and well-being of each person leads Catholic health care to reject all direct abortion.  If it becomes illegal to practice medicine with respect for all human life, Catholic health care will die and many patients will suffer.

Catholic moral reflection also provides a deeper reason why this issue is so important. There is a logic and a hierarchy to human rights.  The most basic right, the condition for all others, is the right to live.  We can’t enjoy any rights – the right to vote, to speak and think freely, or to worship as we please – unless we are allowed to live long enough to exercise them.  Life is the foundation stone for other human rights.  But the pinnacle, the roof on the house of human rights, is the right of conscience and religious freedom.  Only if we have a right to seek the truth and act on it can we promote and advance all elements of human dignity, including basic human rights.  Human dignity begins with life itself, and flourishes in the freedom to worship God and do His will – including His will that we protect the most vulnerable.

A society that claims a “right” to destroy innocent human life undermines all human rights.  But a society that makes its members ignore their moral and religious convictions, and take part in such destruction, has leveled the entire house.   In one stroke it has violated both the most basic and the most exalted human rights.  It has perpetrated the greatest evil of all, by forcing good people to make themselves complicit in grave evil.

This is what the “abortion rights” movement wants -- to implicate even pro-life people in destroying unborn life, so no one can denounce their agenda without implicating themselves as well.  All of us will be guilty, and all will have a vested interest in justifying the evil we do.  At that point the voices that speak for the innocent victims of abortion will be silenced.

We must prevent this from happening.  We can begin by urging our elected representatives to strengthen protection for the conscience rights of health care providers who respect innocent human life.

Richard Doerflinger is associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  For more information on the bishops’ pro-life activities, please visit www.usccb.org/prolife.  To contact Congress about H.R. 3 see www.nchla.org

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