The House voted Wednesday to expand “conscience” protections shielding hospitals, religious groups and individuals who object to abortion on moral grounds from being forced to fund or take part in the procedure.
Democratic women decried the bill as the latest in a string of attacks by Republicans on abortion rights, but Republicans said the legislation wouldn’t stop abortions but make sure women aren’t using their right to terminate a pregnancy as a cudgel to violate the rights of others.
The bill passed by a 245-182 vote, with three Democrats joining all but one Republican in approving it.
“Whoever you are, whatever you believe, I think this is one thing we can all agree on: No one should be forced to violate their conscience — least of all by the federal government,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “That’s all this bill says.”
The protections have been part of annual appropriations laws for years, but pro-life activists said the Obama administration has found ways to get around those laws.
The most recent case stems from California, which enacted a law requiring all employers, including Catholic schools, hospitals and even churches, to carry health insurance that includes abortion coverage. Churches objected and took their complaint to the Obama administration, which sided with California.
Republicans said another case involved a New York nurse who was forced to assist in an abortion and whose discrimination lawsuit took years to settle. A federal court tossed her case, saying she didn’t have standing to sue.
The Republican bill would give those who believe their rights of conscience have been trampled a recourse to sue. It would also put the federal Department of Health and Human Services in charge of investigating complaints.
The legislation would prohibit coercion of hospitals, doctors or nurses who object to abortion to help patients get the procedure elsewhere.
Democrats said the bill would confuse and place new burdens on women and doctors.
“This takes away a woman’s right of conscience,” said Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat.
Republicans, though, said a woman’s right to an abortion can’t be used to trample others’ rights.
“Voting for this bill isn’t voting against abortion. It’s voting against compulsion,” said Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican.
The bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate because of the limited time remaining in the congressional session and because Democrats are certain to mount a filibuster if the legislation is brought to the floor.
President Obama has vowed a veto.
In a statement this week, the White House budget office said the bill was too broad, allowing even nonreligious employers to refuse to pay for abortion coverage because of their religious beliefs. The White House said Mr. Obama has done enough to protect those who have moral objections.
Republicans said the HHS ruling in favor of California undercuts that promise.
During floor debate Wednesday, Republicans repeatedly pointed to Mr. Obama’s words in a 2009 speech at the University of Notre Dame, where he pleaded for respect on both sides, saying the government must “draft a sensible conscience clause.”