WASHINGTON — Twenty-nine members of Congress have called on the Obama administration to make good the president’s pledge at Notre Dame to support a “sensible conscience clause.”

Conscience clauses protect doctors, nurses and pharmacists who refuse to participate in abortions or dispense abortion pills from being threatened or fired.

In his commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame May 17, Obama told students and faculty one way to find “common ground” on abortion is for the federal government to draft a “sensible conscience clause” for those “who disagree with abortion.”

In response, Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Chris Smith, R-N.J., sent a letter to the president calling on him to publicly “put an end” to his plan to scrap the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) conscience-protection rules put into place by the Bush administration.

Sensenbrenner also sent a letter, signed by 28 other members of Congress, to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who’s responsible for enforcing conscience-protection laws. Sebelius, a Catholic, is pro-abortion.

“I am pleased the president says he wants to help protect life and the rights of health-care workers,” the letter to Sebelius read. “However, we need to hold his feet to the fire and ensure his actions match his well-scripted rhetoric. If he is declaring his administration to be one of choice, then health-care workers should have the choice to not perform an abortion without fear or coercion.”

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also praised Obama’s promise to support conscience clauses.

“Catholic providers, in particular, make a large and essential contribution to health care in our society,” the cardinal said. “Essential steps to protect these conscience rights will strengthen our health-care system and enhance many patients’ access to essential life-affirming care.” In the United States, there are 562 Catholic hospitals treating more than 85 million people a year.

Strong support for the rules crosses partisan lines. In late March, Senate Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania also sent a letter to the White House, urging Obama to preserve the conscience-protection rules.

“Discriminating against health-care providers because of their consciences or forcing coercion into their practices would be a substantial deviation from our shared goal of reducing abortions in America,” Casey and Nelson said.

What Does ‘Sensible’ Mean?

Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical Association, expressed concerns about the president’s use of the word “sensible” when referring to the drafting of a conscience clause. “I thought we had a sensible one,” Stevens said.

“You’re seeing the president use all these code words. And what he’s saying essentially is that they’re going to re-craft something and call it ‘sensible’ and call the rules we have now ‘insensible,’ and then limit our conscience rights,” Stevens said. “That’s the only way I can interpret it.”

However, he added, “I hope I’m wrong.”

Threats to health-care providers’ conscience rights appear to be rampant and increasing. In a recent survey of Christian Medical Association members, 40% reported they’d been pressured to compromise their convictions; 24% had lost a position, promotion or compensation as a result, and 88% thought the problem is getting worse.

Other Protections

Are the HHS rules the only federal regulations that protect medical students from not having to train for abortions, doctors from not having to do them, and pharmacists from not having to dispense abortion pills?

Not entirely.

Three federal laws, including the Weldon Amendment, also protect health-care providers’ freedom to practice according to their deeply held religious, moral or ethical convictions.

The Weldon Amendment, an appropriations-bill rider that has to be passed annually by Congress, has been called “the proverbial 800-pound gorilla” of conscience-protection clauses. It has long been targeted by abortion lobbyists, who would like nothing better than to see it defeated in 2010. “Congress is now beginning the appropriations for next year’s budget, and there’s great fear the Weldon Amendment will be stripped out then,” said John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association.

Under the Weldon Amendment, California alone stands to lose $49 billion in federal funds if it discriminates against institutions (such as Catholic hospitals) or individuals who refuse to provide, pay for, cover or refer for abortions.

“One reason the Weldon Amendment was passed is that California has a criminal statute for any physician who refuses to perform an abortion on an ‘emergency’ basis. And the Weldon Amendment protects physicians against that,” Brehany said.

The HHS regulations add no new health-care conscience protections. But, if enforced, the rules would put teeth into laws like the Weldon Amendment. Among other things, the HHS rules set up a complaint procedure for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health-care workers who’ve had their conscience rights violated.

Stevens said doctors and other health-care providers don’t need new rules: “All we need to do is enforce the laws on the books, and things will be fine.”

A Polarized Debate

Pro-abortion lobbyists have another name for the HHS conscience-protection rule: They call it the “Bush Health-Care Denial Rule.”

What is it about conscience protections the abortion lobby hates so much? Repeated e-mails and phone calls to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and NARAL Pro-Choice America went unanswered. But an ACLU press release opposing the HHS rule charged that “it allows health-care workers and facilities to refuse to provide reproductive health-care services, even at the expense of patient safety.”

Conscience clauses are known in the pro-abortion world as “refusal clauses” that get in the way of a woman’s right to choose. “While we firmly believe that all people have a right to their own opinions and moral beliefs, it is unethical for health-care providers to stand in the way of a woman’s access to safe, legal and professional health care,” a Planned Parenthood website read.

On Jan. 15, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn the HHS regulations. The Connecticut attorney general’s office and Planned Parenthood Federation of America with Planned Parenthood of Connecticut have also filed separate legal challenges to the HHS rules.

In February, Obama announced his plan to rescind the HHS rules outright. On March 10, HHS issued a proposal to follow through on Obama’s plan. A 30-day public comment period followed, ending April 9. During the comment period, the HHS received more than 340,000 comments, the overwhelming majority of which favored the rules.

In recent weeks, the only official word on the subject from the Obama administration was the president’s May 17 Notre Dame speech.

As this article went to press, repeated e-mails and phone calls to Secretary Sebelius’ office went unreturned, leaving major questions unanswered.

Stevens suggested the silence surrounding this issue may be strategic.

“Increasingly, we’ve seen that the other side doesn’t want to even come to debate on this topic in media interviews because they want to keep a very low profile on this,” Stevens says. “At least at Notre Dame, President Obama acknowledged that there’s an issue. But I don’t think his remarks decreased people’s concern. Among those who are knowledgeable about the problem, he probably increased concern.”

Sue Ellin Browder writes

from Willits, California.