- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2017

Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to protect the conscience rights of pro-life health care entities and employers from the coercive power of federal and state governments compelling them to participate in abortions.

The Conscience Protection Act of 2017, introduced last month by Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, would add an additional layer of protection to ensure the government cannot discriminate against organizations because of their pro-life beliefs.

Mr. Fortenberry said the Conscience Protection Act will “enable health care professionals and organizations to serve by their core convictions without coercion.”

“Conscience is the sacred space of human dignity where persons exercise their sincerely held, reasoned beliefs,” Mr. Fortenberry said in a statement. “It is a true poverty that this most cherished American principle is under assault, violating the good of persons and communities.”

The Weldon Amendment already prohibits the government from discriminating against health care entities because of their refusal to participate in abortions. But the only relief provided by that provision is the ability to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Conscience Protection Act, on the other hand, grants a right of action allowing afflicted parties to take their case straight to court.

Kevin Theriot, vice president of the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Life, said this is significant because HHS often assigns such complaints a low priority and drags its feet in resolving them.

In one case, the department took almost four years to respond to the complaint of a nurse who was forced to take part in the abortion of a 22-week-old fetus in New York.

“The main difference is the Conscience Protection Act provides the private right of action, so an individual that’s affected by discrimination from a state entity or the federal government that says we’re going to force you to do something that violates your conscience regarding abortion, then that person can actually file a lawsuit and doesn’t have to wait on the federal government to come and defend their rights,” Mr. Theriot said.

Federal and state governments have recently sought to force pro-life entities to violate their conscience rights and participate in abortions.

In 2014, California enacted a law mandating insurance plans to cover abortions and contained no religion exemption. The state passed a law the next year requiring pro-life pregnancy centers to refer patients to clinics where they could procure state-funded abortions.

Illinois followed suit last year when Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, signed a bill into law forcing pro-life medical professionals to counsel pregnant patients on the “benefits” of abortion. Similar legislation is also being considered in Hawaii.

Under President Obama, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a contraceptive mandate compelling employers to cover abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans. That mandate was challenged in a pair of high-profile Supreme Court cases brought first by Hobby Lobby and then by a coalition of Christian organizations led by Little Sisters of the Poor.

Mr. Theriot said the Conscience Protection Act addresses a loophole exploited by the Obama administration in its interpretation of the Affordable Care Act’s religious exemption, which applied only to houses of worship.

“That carve-out was limited to organizations that are churches, essentially,” Mr. Theriot said. “So because Little Sisters of the Poor is a religious ministry and not a church, then it wasn’t covered by that. This would cover all of those ministries, too.”

The House version of the Conscience Protection Act mirrors one introduced in the upper chamber last year by Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma.

Mr. Lankford said the legislation is necessary to “ensure that health providers have the ability to defend their religious or moral beliefs without fear of discrimination.”

“This bill is needed to give health care providers the right to provide medical care without violating their deeply held beliefs,” Mr. Lankford said in a statement. “Americans have very different views about abortion, but we should not force anyone to participate in it or provide coverage.”

The legislation passed in the House last year on a 245-182 vote but never received a vote in the Senate.

The Conscience Protection Act would also provide relief to Catholic hospitals being sued for declining to perform abortions, Mr. Theriot said, pointing to the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against Trinity Health Corp., a Catholic organization that owns and operates more than 80 hospitals across the country.

“It certainly would apply to the individual physicians or the Catholic hospitals that, for instance, the ACLU is suing,” Mr. Theriot said. “They sued Trinity hospital corporation in Michigan, which has about 93 hospitals around the region, and tried to force them to perform surgical abortions.”

Thomas A. Glessner, founder and president of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, said many pro-life health care entities set up shop solely to provide alternatives to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.

“They’re standing up and asserting their pro-life convictions that we need to provide alternatives to abortion, to mothers who are going to be, without this, in Planned Parenthood,” Mr. Glessner said. “But if we’re now forced by penalty of law to have to refer for abortion, then we’re nothing but an extension of Planned Parenthood as far as I can see.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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