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Conscience rights the focus of legislation

Another step toward protection of religious freedom for health care providers may soon be taken, if the U.S. Congress decides to act.

The Conscience Protection Act of 2017 would give providers – including health care professionals, facilities, social service providers, health care training instructors and health insurers – protection from governmental discrimination for refusing to offer, refer, participate in or offer coverage for abortion. And it would give health care providers, organizations and employees the ability to defend their rights in civil court.

The legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by co-sponsors Diane Black, R-Tenn., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., with a Senate version introduced by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

The bill was incorporated into the 2018 omnibus appropriations bill in the House and passed Sept. 14. The Senate deferred action, so Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels, pending final House/Senate negotiations later this year.

Previous measures such as the Church, Weldon and Coats-Snowe amendments offered some measure of protection, but no right to seek a remedy in court.

“The need for clarification of federal law cannot be doubted,” said Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and former executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

“While existing federal laws already protect conscientious objection to abortion in theory, this protection has not proved effective in practice,” he said. “These laws can only be enforced by complaint to the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which – despite repeated violations – has refused to fully enforce these laws in the past administration.”

That was the experience, for example, of Cathy DeCarlo, a Catholic nurse from New York forced to assist in a late-term abortion in 2009.

She was denied legal standing to sue her employer and waited four years for resolution of her case by the HHS, which found no basis for her complaint but required the hospital to strengthen its compliance with federal conscience statutes for health care providers.

Schleppenbach said the measure “… is much-needed, common-sense legislation that will clarify federal conscience laws on abortion and ensure that those who provide health care and health coverage can do so without being forced by government to help destroy innocent unborn children.”

Last month, religious rights proponents celebrated victories as the Trump administration expanded an exemption from the federal government’s mandate for employee health insurance coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The U.S. Justice Department also settled the cases of more than 70 plaintiffs challenging that mandate in the courts.

Schleppenbach encouraged people to urge their representatives and senators to pass the Conscience Protection Act. Messages can be sent through Human Life Action at www.humanlifeaction.org.

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