White House Silent on Conscience Concerns in Health Care

White House press secretary Jen Psaki refused to answer a question regarding conscience protections regarding health care but added, “You’ll have to talk to a future secretary Becerra once he is confirmed."

White House Press secretary Jen Psaki answers a question from EWTN News Nightly's Owen Jensen on February 16, 2021.
White House Press secretary Jen Psaki answers a question from EWTN News Nightly's Owen Jensen on February 16, 2021. (photo: ENN / EWTN)

WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday would not reveal its position on doctors being forced to perform abortions and gender-transition surgeries under the Equality Act.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki would not directly answer questions by EWTN News Nightly White House correspondent Owen Jensen on conscience rights in health care, at Tuesday’s White House press briefing.

Jensen brought up the Equality Act, which passed the House last week and which outlaws “pregnancy discrimination” and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), as well as pro-life groups, have warned that the legislation would essentially create rights to procedures such as abortion, sterilization, and gender-transition surgery. The bill could also eviscerate conscience protections of health care workers opposed to participating in these procedures, these groups have warned.

“Pro-life groups right now are very concerned about the phrase ‘pregnancy discrimination’ in the Equality Act,” Jensen said. “That it would force doctors to perform abortions, even if it violates their conscience. There are also concerns the bill would force doctors to perform gender-transition surgeries and sterilizations, again, even if it violates their conscience.”

“What does the president, President Biden, say about those concerns?” he asked Psaki.

The press secretary replied that Biden “has been a long supporter of Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. She said nothing of conscience protections.

When Jensen followed up by asking about Biden’s position on “conscience concerns,” Psaki simply repeated her previous statement.

Jensen then asked if Biden would maintain the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The division was created in 2018 to enforce federal statutory conscience protections and field complaints by health care workers who claimed they were forced to participate in procedures such as abortions.

Psaki, again, would not directly answer that question. “You’ll have to talk to a future secretary Becerra once he is confirmed,” she said.

Xavier Becerra, currently the attorney general of California, is the nominee to lead HHS and could be confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday. He was twice found to be in violation of federal conscience laws by the HHS Office for Civil Rights, for his defense of state mandates that pro-life groups provide abortion coverage and that crisis pregnancy centers advertise for abortions.

At his confirmation hearing last week, Becerra would not say when asked whether he would maintain the existing conscience division at HHS. He simply said he would “respect” and “enforce” the law—which would include a number of existing federal conscience protections in health care.

The HHS conscience division has outlined those conscience protections and enforced them in recent years. In 2019, for instance, the HHS civil rights office found a Vermont hospital to be in violation of federal law after a nurse complained of being forced to assist at an abortion.

Becerra, at his hearings, would not name a single abortion restriction that he supported. He refused to answer, when asked, if he would support bans on sex-selective or partial-birth abortions. He did, however, comment that his wife is an OB/GYN doctor who cares for babies and that his mother prays the rosary.

Becerra also sued the Trump administration over its granting religious and moral exemptions to the HHS contraceptive mandate. The mandate forced employers to provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients in their health plans.

California’ lawsuit, along with Pennsylvania’s, ultimately forced the Little Sisters of the Poor to go back to court to defend their religious exemption. The sisters won at the Supreme Court last July, but President Biden said during his presidential campaign that he would repeal their religious exemption.

When asked about the sisters’ religious exemption to having to provide contraception coverage and last week, Becerra said he would “defend the law and support the law that’s in place.”

Roger Severino speaks at a news conference at the Department of Health and Human Services Jan. 18, 2018, in Washington, DC.

Defending Conscience Rights in Healthcare with Roger Severino (Episode 4)

Healthcare affects every American - whether we are ill or healthy, parents or caretakers for aging relatives, or those who work as medical professionals. Many current issues related to healthcare services and medical procedures implicate religious freedom and conscience rights. Roger Severino is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of the Center’s new HHS Accountability Project. He joins Andrea Picciotti-Bayer of the Conscience Project and Matthew Bunson, EWTN News’ executive editor, to discuss the threats to this important civil right and the protections under the law for conscience in healthcare

Joseph Meaney

NCBC’s Joseph Meaney on Vaccinations and Conscience Rights

Amid a wave of new COVID-19 vaccine mandates being rolled out by businesses and institutions, Catholics who morally object to the vaccines are finding themselves at odds with those who think the ethical obligation to protect public health should trump conscience rights. On Register Radio, Joseph Meaney of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, offers guidance for Catholics to wade through the issues in play and make properly informed decisions for their own health and the good of society.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]