House Passes Bill to Protect Conscience Rights of Pro-Life Health Care Providers

AP

The House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday to prevent the government from discriminating against doctors, hospitals, and other health care entities that object to participating in abortion.

The House passed the Conscience Protection Act of 2016 on a mostly party-line vote, 245-182. The legislation would allow health care entities to seek relief in civil court under the Weldon Amendment, a bipartisan measure passed in 2004 to protect the conscience rights of pro-life health care entities.

Currently, health care entities can file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services if they feel they were forced to violate their conscience by facilitating abortion, but follow-up by the department has been slow. The bill passed on Tuesday by the House would allow entities to file civil lawsuits without going through the department first.

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Prominent pro-life groups have been urging a vote on the bill for years. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) took action on the bill after HHS reinterpreted the Weldon Amendment so California could force churches to purchase health care plans that cover all forms of elective abortion.

"The [California] Department of Managed Health Care required all insurance plans in the state to offer coverage of elective abortion, HHS took two years to determine that no violation of the law had occurred—this despite the fact that churches and Christian universities are now required to subsidize abortion through their insurance plans," said Rep. Diane Black (R., Tenn.), who led efforts to pass the bill.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said the bill defends a longstanding consensus that Americans should not be forced to participate in abortion from attacks by state governments and the Obama administration.

"It is a gross violation of our First Amendment freedoms that a pro-life nurse would be forced to assist during a late-term abortion at 22 weeks—even be forced to go through the body parts of the child—or else risk being fired. Similarly, Americans should not be forced into providing or purchasing health care plans that cover abortion on demand against their deeply-held beliefs," Dannenfelser said.

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Matt Bowman released a statement about the Conscience Protection Act on Wednesday.

"Health professionals should always have the freedom—and indeed, have a right—not to be forced to perform abortions," Bowman said. "In addition, every woman should be free to choose a doctor who values the life of her baby. Because the Obama administration has violated pro-life conscience laws so that now even churches, in many instances, must pay for abortion insurance, this bill has become necessary."

A survey by the Knights of Columbus-Marist Poll shows that 56 percent of Americans believe medical professionals and organizations should be able to opt out of abortion procedures and coverage, versus 37 percent who do not believe they should have that protection.

"Consistent with our First Amendment guarantees, the American people believe that no person or organization should be compelled to help perform or cover abortion," said Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson.

"Our Constitution guarantees our right of conscience, and Thomas Jefferson affirmed this when he stated, ‘No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience.’ Today, we voted to enact the Conscious Protection Act, thus protecting that right," said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R., Ga.), a co-sponsor of the legislation.