A bill aiming to ensure health care providers can sue after suffering discrimination for refusing to participate in abortions is set to go before the House floor this week.
Introduced in March, The Conscience Protection Act of 2016 (H.R. 4828) would add a private right of action to federal laws such as the Weldon, Coates-Snow, and Church amendments—laws created to protect the rights of health service providers who refuse to participate in or fund abortions on conscience grounds. While these amendments have always been signed annually as part of annual Labor/Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations acts, the current administration has increasingly failed to enforce them and prohibited people discriminated against from taking their cases to court.
“To defend pro-life Americans’ fundamental rights, we need a clear definition of who’s protected and a method of enforcement that’s legally secure and workable,” Richard Doerflinger told the House Energy and Commerce Committee assigned to the bill at a Friday forum on protecting conscience rights. Doerflinger has directed pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “That would be provided by the Conscience Protection Act.”
California Inserts Abortion Coverage Into All Insurance Plans
Rev. John Lewis of California said at the forum that as a result of a 2014 mandate from the Californa Department of Managed Health Care, his church in Glen Morrow, California, is facing thousands of dollars per employee in fines if it requests an insurance plan that will not fund abortions.
The illegal mandate directly violated the Weldon amendment and inserted coverage for terminated pregnancies into every insurance plan in the state with no religious exception. In June, HHS’ Office for Civil Rights director Jocelyn Samuels effectively declared the administration will not enforce the law in California. Now states including New York and Washington are considering similar illegal mandates.
“Foothill Church is being coerced by the state to violate one of our most cherished beliefs and deeply-held convictions and offer abortion in our medical plans,” Lewis said. “We simply can’t take on the cost of self-insuring our employees and their families; so here we are left in a precarious position first by the state and now by the administration which has refused to enforce the law that should be protecting us.”
Nurses Forced to Assist in Abortions
The forum also featured testimonies of coercion elsewhere in the nation. These included a statement by Catherina Cenza DeCarlo, an operating room nurse in New York who was coerced by her hospital into participating in a 22-week abortion.
“They were well-aware that as a faithful Catholic, I could not participate in the killing,” she said. “Yet they threatened my job, and my nursing license, if I did not take part in the murder of the baby.”
DeCarlo said her nurse’s duties, which included counting the body parts afterward, left her feeling “violated,” but that she faced further discrimination when told she could not take her case to court.
“The courts told me that even though the hospital broke the law, I had no right to have my day in court,” DeCarlo said. “The health care Conscience Rights Act will change this. It will let doctors and nurses go to court if they are illegally coerced in assisting abortions.”
Fe Vinoya, also a nurse, spoke on behalf of 12 nurses ordered to assist in an abortion five years ago in New Jersey.
“I was asked to choose between following my conscience and keeping my job to support my family,” Vinoya said. “We were required to be trained in the preparation, delivery, and disposal of the baby; our jobs were threatened if we were not to follow their directions.”
The 12 nurses eventually were represented in court by the Alliance Defending Freedom and won their case. But others, Vinoya said, “will not be so fortunate,” and “should not have to rely simply on the hope that the administration in power will enforce the law.”
Health Care Personnel Demand Private Right of Action
“I was outraged when I learned the administration had gutted my amendment and allowed discrimination to go on in California,” said Dr. Dave Weldon, a former congressman and author of the 2004 Weldon amendment. “When the abortion lobby found out that Catholic Universities in California did not cover abortion in their insurance plans, they sprang into action and initiated a meeting with the Department of Managed Health Care. Less than a year later, the department, at the bidding of Planned Parenthood and ACLU, unilaterally asserted abortion into each and every insurance plan under their authority—even plans purchased by churches and Catholic Universities.”
Weldon said his amendment even allowed for insurance companies “to offer multiple insurance plans: some with abortion coverage and some without to meet the conscience’ needs of their clients.” Nevertheless, after the DMHC issued its directive, the “plans excluding abortion were changed to include it.”
William J. Cox, president of Alliance of Catholic Health Care, pointed out that “every federal civil rights law except for the Weldon and Church amendments include a private right of action.”
“We’re not interested in financially penalizing any state that violates the Weldon amendment,” he added. “Our only interest is in bringing the states into compliance with consistent federal law; all we’re seeking is the legal status quo Weldon with an additional remedy of private right of action.”
Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Consciences Deserve Protection
Weldon said he believes the current administration has twisted the words of his law to argue it includes a requirement for a moral or religious test in order to gain protection for freedom of conscience.
“They take this reference to conscience protection and argue that it must mean that I meant to include a religious or moral test in my amendment; this is far from the truth,” Weldon said. The amendment, he said, was specifically not limited to protecting those with religious or moral objections.
He and Casey Mattox, senior counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, added they’ve spoken to many doctors who support Roe v. Wade but would never wish to perform an abortion themselves—perhaps due to the gruesome nature of the procedure or commitment to the Hippocratic Oath. The Conscience Protection Act of 2016 would protect these doctors as well.
“The Office of Civil Rights also attempted to twist several more of my comments in their efforts to ignore the plain reading of the text,” Weldon said. “One begins to wonder how far the abortion lobby and their allies in the administration will go to force abortion into our health care system.”
According to Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), chairman of the Health Subcommittee assigned to this bill, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan intends to bring this bill before the House for further discussion at some point this week.