WASHINGTON — A bill that would protect health care providers’ freedom to opt out of abortion mandates they find objectionable has once again been introduced in Congress.
“This bill is needed to give health care providers the right to provide medical care without violating their deeply held beliefs,” Sen. James Lankford, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, stated on Friday.
“Americans have very different views about abortion, but we should not force anyone to participate in it or provide coverage,” he added.
The Conscience Protection Act would protect health care providers from federal, state and local abortion mandates if they conscientiously object to assisting with abortions. It would also protect religious employers from having to cover elective abortions in their health plans and establishes a “right of action” for all entities if they believe their religious beliefs on the matter are violated.
The bill was introduced in Congress last year and passed the House 245-182, but did not receive a vote in the Senate.
Its sponsors say that doctors religiously objecting to abortion are not sufficiently protected from abortion mandates. Medical professionals must file a grievance with the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services, and some complaints reportedly sit undecided for months or years.
Some states have already been forcing religious employers to offer abortion coverage and have coerced health providers into assisting or performing abortions.
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., who introduced the Conscience Protection Act in the House, pointed to California and New York abortion mandates as examples of this, including the case of a New York nurse who in 2009 was forced to assist with an abortion.
Cathy Cenzon-Decarlo, a nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, said the hospital coerced her into helping with an abortion there. She requested an investigation by HHS, which in 2013 found that the hospital had to change its policies to accommodate employees with conscientious objections to abortion.
California recently forced all employers, including religious groups, to cover elective abortions in their health plans. Last June, the former head of the HHS civil rights office ruled that religious groups that opposed California’s mandate were not protected and would have to comply with it.
In light of these incidents, last March leading U.S. bishops asked Congress to pass the Conscience Protection Act.
The bill would “address the deficiencies that block effective enforcement of existing laws, most notably by establishing a private right of action allowing victims of discrimination to defend their own rights in court,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said in a joint statement in March of 2016.
Other religious groups pushed for Congress to pass the bill last year, including the Christ Medicus Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for Catholic teaching and ethics in health care.
“Conscience is the sacred space of human dignity, where persons exercise their sincerely held, reasoned beliefs,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., another sponsor of the bill, said on Friday. “It is a true poverty that this most cherished American principle is under assault, violating the good of persons and communities.”