Advocates see growing support for pro-life act

A coalition of pro-life organizations, lawmakers and health care professionals are aiming to strengthen and protect the conscience rights of medical providers who refuse to participate in abortions. 

Supporters of the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act argue that Congress should pass the legislation to protect pro-life doctors and nurses across the country who are facing increasing pressures to compromise their convictions. 

“We are seeing a lot more of these kinds of problems coming forward than what we’ve ever seen before,” said U.S. Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) who introduced ANDA last year in the House of Representatives. 

Fleming told Our Sunday Visitor that he believes there is growing support for the legislation, which failed to pass the House last year as an attachment to a larger spending bill. 

Fleming framed ANDA as a life issue, and said its prospects for becoming law will probably increase in 2013 if Republicans maintain their majority in the House, capture more seats in the Senate and take the White House this fall. 

“What we’re asking for is simple and not a lot; that someone, who is a victim of discrimination as a result of their conscience, have their day in court,” Fleming said. 

Strengthening protections

Advocates have been pushing for the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act for several years. They say the bill would strengthen existing federal conscience protections by permanently codifying the Hyde/Weldon Conscience Protection Amendment, a provision that prevents government agencies from requiring health care entities that receive federal funding to provide or pay for certain abortion-related services. 

First enacted in 2004, the Hyde/Weldon Amendment has to be passed every year as an attachment to the appropriations bill for the federal departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. The Abortion Non-Discrimination Act would transform Hyde/Weldon into permanent law. 

Supporters say ANDA would pass constitutional challenges, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has always upheld laws to protect conscience rights. The legislation also seeks to eliminate ambiguities in Hyde/Weldon by making it clear that the law also applies to sub-units of state and local governments that receive federal health and human services funding. 

William J. Cox, president and CEO of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, an advocacy group for Catholic hospitals in California, told OSV that some entities try to evade Hyde/Weldon’s requirements. 

“The problem with Weldon in its current form is that some state and federal agencies simply ignore it,” said Cox, adding that most agencies also do not believe the federal government would ever impose the current penalty for violating the law, which would be the complete loss of a state’s federal health, education and labor funds. 

“The current administration would never enforce that. If you look at the state of California, that would amount to $30 billion a year. It’s unlikely the federal government would deny the state its allocation,” Cox said. 

Need for due process

The current law also lacks adequate due process for health care agencies and individuals who feel their conscience rights are being violated, said Kellie Fiedorek, staff counsel for Americans United for Life, a national pro-life nonprofit, public-interest law and policy organization. 

“A private right of action is important,” Fiedorek told OSV. 

ANDA would enable health care providers to seek immediate relief in federal court. A health care provider pressured into participating in abortion procedures currently has to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and then hope the agency will investigate the complaint and enforce the law. 

“That is problematic when you have an administration that itself is engaged in discrimination,” said Cox, who noted the recent string of battles between church organizations and HHS, which is overseen by Kathleen Sebelius, the Catholic former governor of Kansas who has clashed with the bishops over her pro-choice views. 

In the past six months, HHS has cut funding for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ respected anti-human trafficking programs because its Office of Migration and Refugee Services refused to refer victims to abortion providers. The bishops have also balked at an HHS mandate that employers cover contraception in their health care coverage plans. 

Pressuring workers

Those clashes dovetail with several recent examples of pro-life doctors, nurses and health care entities being pressured to provide abortion-related services. 

In October 2011, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey warned 12 nurses that they would be fired if they refused to assist in abortions. The nurses filed a lawsuit against the publicly-funded university, which subsequently agreed to not force the nurses to assist with abortions. The university, which receives about $60 million in federal health funds annually, also agreed to not reduce their hours or replace them with other nurses willing to perform abortions. 

“Health care professionals are facing increasing pressure to participate in the abortion process. Any law that broadens protections for them and strengthens their ability to protect their rights is a good thing,” said Matt Bowman, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund who represented the nurses. 

Meanwhile, in Maryland, a host of advocacy groups, including the National Organization for Women, last year tried to stop Holy Cross Hospital from building a new facility because it would not perform abortions. In Kentucky, the state’s attorney general cited questions of abortion coverage in recommending against a proposed merger between the University of Louisville Hospital and Catholic Health Initiatives. 

The California Department of Managed Health Care attempted to force two Catholic health care hospital systems to cover abortions in their employees’ health insurance plans, said Cox, who added that a lengthy negotiation process brought the DMHC’s position more in line with the systems’ ethical and religious directives. 

‘Critical time’

“We really have to educate Catholics and others across the United States as to what is at stake here,” Cox said. “If we really want to see the Church provide health care services, international relief services and social services through Catholic Charities, we’re going to have to stand up for our rights as a religious institution.” 

“It is important for people to realize what a critical time we’re in,” Fiedorek said. “We are seeing more and more threats to health care workers’ conscience rights. Freedom of conscience is such an important core American principle. That is why ANDA is an important bill. We’re hopeful to at least see a vote on it in the House this year.” 

Cox said he favored attaching ANDA to a larger appropriations bill, and argued that the support of the pro-life membership in the House of Representatives could ensure its passage. 

“If the House leadership were willing to do that, and get the majority behind it, it would put Democrats in the position of refusing to strengthen conscience rights. I’m not sure many Democrats want to be in that position,” Cox said. 

Fleming noted that ANDA had 107 signed co-sponsors and several more supporters in the House last year.  

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.