Obama’s Conscience Promise

When President Obama met the Catholic press, he promised “robust” conscience protections for medical personnel. But those watching the debate wonder what the administration has in store.

WASHINGTON — When President Obama met with members of the Catholic press on July 2, he promised “robust” conscience protections for medical personnel. While that sound-bite may have been welcome news, close watchers of conscience-protection regulation wonder what the administration has in store.

“I can assure all of your readers that when this review is complete there will be a robust conscience clause in place,” Obama told the eight reporters and editors at the White House. “It may not meet the criteria of every possible critic of our approach, but it certainly will not be weaker than what existed before the changes were made.”

In March, the president said he intended to rescind the Bush administration’s January 2009 conscience regulation, which enhanced the protection of conscience rights.

Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, described existing legislation as largely ineffective.

“Federal conscience-protection laws have been in effect for as long as 36 years,” said McQuade. “[Yet], some state and local governments, as well as professional societies and advocacy groups, still attack conscience rights as though they don’t exist. Medical professionals have been fired, threatened with job loss, denied promotions, and coerced for their refusal to perform, refer for or be trained in the harmful practice of abortion.”

“While the laws existed, there was no way to enforce them, and few people knew they existed,” said Scott Lloyd, a former attorney with the Department of Health and Human Services who worked on the conscience rule that was promulgated by President Bush in December 2008.

According to Lloyd, the rule added an enforcement mechanism to three federal laws: the Church Amendments, the Public Health Service Act, and the Weldon Amendment (see sidebar).

“Our job was to come up with a solution to these problems, first of all to make it clear what a violation would be,” explained Lloyd. They also came up with a clear procedure so that if someone felt they were discriminated against, they would know who to call and how to file a claim.

Pro-Life Concerns

Both McQuade and Lloyd had concerns with what the president told reporters.

McQuade had difficulty with the president’s description of the Bush administration’s conscience-protection regulation as “a last-minute, 11th-hour change” that hadn’t been “properly reviewed and thought through.”

“The regulation was proposed by the HHS in August 2008, and then issued in final form on December 19, 2008, after a lengthy period for public comments,” said McQuade. “The regulation was not born of a hasty effort.”

In his meeting with Catholic press, including the Register’s publisher and editor in chief, Legionary Father Owen Kearns, the president stated: “I think there have been some who keep on anticipating the worst from us, and it’s not based on anything I’ve said or done, but is rather just a perception somehow that we have some hard-line agenda that we’re seeking to push.”

Lloyd cited several of the president’s early actions to demonstrate what he did just after coming into office.

“Mexico City [Policy], his professed support of the Freedom of Choice Act, his apparent support for public funding of abortions, and elements of his stem-cell policy are all evidence of a hard-line agenda,” said Lloyd.

During the meeting with journalists, the president also referenced his support for conscience protection in Illinois.

“I was a supporter of a robust conscience clause in Illinois for Catholic hospitals and health-care providers,” said the president.

Yet, as a senator, Obama did not support the Bush administration’s conscience-clause regulations.

“When an early draft of the regulation leaked in August, then Senator Obama was among the 20-some senators who signed a letter to our department asking that we did not promulgate the rules,” said Lloyd. “He promised to rescind them.”

In March, added Lloyd, the president didn’t propose to modify the rules, but rescission, which could add at least another six months onto the process.

Lloyd is concerned that the administration might try to promulgate revised rules which would weaken the rule’s existing language.

“We followed the language of the statutes closely, making little room for change,” said Lloyd. “My guess is that he personally doesn’t really have any detailed understanding of the laws in place, the regulations we wrote, what we did, when we did it, or how the people now in the department intend to change it. The way he spoke to the gathering of Catholic journalists makes me wonder whether he’s misinformed or just not being entirely forthcoming.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Existing Federal Laws on Conscience

The Church Amendments state that if an entity receives federal funding, it cannot discriminate against a person in hiring or promotion if they either participated in abortions or sterilizations or refuse to participate in such activities.

The Public Health Service Act states that a state or government cannot discriminate against a health-care entity that refuses to receive training in abortions, to require or provide such training, to perform abortions, or to provide referrals for such training or such abortions, including making arrangements for such activities. The law was in response to efforts by medical schools to require training in abortion in order to graduate.

The Weldon Amendment states that none of the funds in the annual Labor, Health and Education appropriation may be made available to an agency, state or program if it subjects any health-care entity to discrimination on the basis that the health-care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.

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