When Democrats Respected Conscience

The Obama Administration is again attacking longstanding and bipartisan rights of conscience. After an almost two year delay the HHS Office of Civil Rights recently announced it would not enforce existing federal law, allowing California to compel even churches to provide insurance coverage of elective abortions. Congress is answering this new challenge today by considering the Conscience Protection Act, a bill that would simply codify existing decades-old conscience laws and ensure that those whose rights are violated can seek assistance from the courts instead of depending on the good faith of the Administration. I had the privilege to testify with several ADF clients at a forum on the need for this bill last week. This law is long overdue.

Our consciences should not be up for debate. Regrettably, some would make conscience a partisan issue. Or even a religious one. But historically, despite our differences, Americans have found common ground on respecting individual conscience.

Even as it created the abortion right in Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court acknowledged the importance of protecting both conscience and the professional Hippocratic oath not to participate in abortion. Allaying fears that creating a right to abortion would lead to compelled participation in abortion, the Court pointed to our cultural unanimity on conscience. The American Medical Association, after all, recognized “[t]hat no physician or other professional personnel shall be compelled to perform any act which violates his good medical judgment. Neither physician, hospital, nor hospital personnel shall be required to perform any act violative of personally held moral principles.”

Few disagreed. When weeks after Roe the House considered the Church Amendments, intended in part to stop the ACLU’s lawsuits to force Catholic hospitals to either perform abortions or stop serving Medicaid patients, the bill passed 372-1 in the House and 92-1 in the Senate, an unfathomable vote on any bill today. Senator Ted Kennedy defended the bill’s “full protection to the religious freedom of physicians and others.”

As new threats arose this bipartisan agreement to protect conscience remained, and additional conscience laws were passed and signed to protect medical professionals from being coerced by another’s choice to have an abortion. As recently as 1992, when testifying in support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ACLU President Nadine Strossen explained the law would safeguard “such familiar practices as . . . permitting religiously sponsored hospitals to decline to provide abortion or contraception services.”

            Sadly, as the Obama Administration’s refusal to enforce the law demonstrates, conscience is no longer a consensus. When everyone from Ted Kennedy to Jesse Helms agreed that we were all better off with doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and religious hospitals serving the public while maintaining their moral and ethical principles and professional judgment on abortion, existing healthcare conscience laws may have been sufficient. But today that consensus has eroded.

  • The ACLU has relaunched its decades-old assault on Catholic hospitals and aid agencies with a new campaign to force them to perform abortions or withdraw from serving the poor.
  • Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals face increasing pressures and orders to perform abortions or lose their jobs.
  • Washington has enacted a law at Planned Parenthood’s request designed to punish pharmacists that would not violate their conscience.
  • After years of failed attempts to push abortion mandates through blue state legislatures, the abortion lobby has now found unelected allies to impose these mandates bureaucratically – with even churches forced to cover abortions from the offering plate.
  • And as the Administration refuses to enforce the existing conscience laws, medical students are pressured not to pursue careers in women’s health knowing that they may no longer be able to depend on these bipartisan laws to protect them when they need it.

Whatever one’s abortion views, Americans should be able to agree – as even the most ardent abortion supporters in Congress and culture historically have – that the abortion “choice” should not involve government compulsion of others.

But these existing laws are no longer sufficient to protect individual conscience. Given the Administration’s refusal to enforce these bipartisan laws, it is clear that medical professionals, students, churches these protections meaningful again. We need the Conscience Protection Act.

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