Groups ask Congress to pass conscience protection for health care workers

For decades, Congress and U.S. presidents—both Republican and Democrat—have approved federal laws "protecting conscientious objection to abortion," but it is increasingly clear current laws "offer far less protection in practice than in theory," said a group of faith-based, health care and pro-life organizations.

A group of 26 organizations made the comments in a joint letter to members of the House of Representatives urging them to pass the Conscience Protection Act of 2016, or H.R. 4828.

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"Even many 'pro-choice' Americans realize that the logic of their position requires them to respect a choice not to be involved in abortion," the group said.

"We represent millions of Americans and tens of thousands of health care professionals with a profound concern about abortion, and particularly about the conscience rights of health care professionals and facilities," it added.

The letter pointed to several loopholes in current law that it said would be addressed by the Conscience Protection Act, introduced March 22 by Reps. John Fleming, R-Louisiana, and Vicky Hartzler, R-Missouri. Fleming is a medical doctor.

One example of such a loophole is taking place in California, it said. In 2014, the state began demanding that all health plans under the jurisdiction of the state's Department of Managed Health Care—"even those purchased by churches and other religious organizations"—cover elective abortions for any reason, "including late-term abortions and those performed for reasons of 'sex selection.'"

The state allows no exemption of any kind, the letter said, noting that such a policy "flagrantly violates" the Weldon Amendment, a federal law enacted in 2005 to protect the conscience rights of institutions and individuals.

The California Catholic Conference filed a complaint about the policy in September 2014 with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To date, that office has not acted on the complaint, the letter said.

H.R. 4828 "is very similar to the abortion nondiscrimination provision that for the last three years has been part of the House's Labor/HHS appropriations bills," the letter said. "It takes the core policy of Weldon—protecting those who decline to perform, pay for, refer for, or provide coverage for abortion—and writes it into permanent law. It clarifies the protections of Weldon, and adds a private right of action to enforce this law and other long-standing conscience laws on abortion."

Among the signers of the letter are the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; the Christian Medical Association and Catholic Medical Association; the National Council of Catholic Women; the March for Life Education and Defense Fund; the National Association of Evangelicals; the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; the Knights of Columbus; National Right to Life; and several associations of physicians and nurses.

The group's letter follows a March 31 letter to House members from the chairmen of two U.S. bishops' committees urging support for H.R. 4828 and noting its "modest scope."

"While existing federal laws already protect conscientious objection to abortion in theory, this protection has not proved effective in practice," wrote New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who chair, respectively, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty

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