Government shouldn’t force people to violate their consciences. Until recently, that opinion hasn’t been particularly controversial, even where actual controversial issues like abortion were involved. One can support abortion and still think government shouldn’t discriminate against medical professionals who don’t perform abortions.
But if you want to gin up opposition to something, it presumably helps to pretend that it’s your opponent who is the extremist. You can’t very well admit that it’s your own opinion that is historically extreme and your opponent who has history on his side. That’s a much harder sell.
Perhaps this is why, in a story yesterday about the new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office to address conscience and religious freedom for medical professionals and institutions, Politico casually dropped this nugget: “So-called conscience protections have been politically controversial since shortly after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973.”
This claim may be politically useful, but it is demonstrably false. At the risk of appearing to repeatedly bludgeon this false narrative to death, it’s important to understand just how inexcusably wrong this instance of fake news is, and how these sorts of so-called “mistakes” drive narratives that create today’s politics.
‘Shortly after Roe v. Wade’
Weeks after the Supreme Court released its decision in Roe v. Wade, Congress enacted the first of the federal laws aimed at protecting conscience in light of this newly minted “right” to abortion. The Church Amendment, named for its sponsor, Idaho’s longtime Democratic Sen. Frank Church, ensured that Catholic hospitals could continue to provide health care to millions of Medicaid patients without being forced to also perform abortions.
That provision passed 372-1 in the House and 92-1 in the Senate. Noted right-winger Sen. Ted Kennedy spoke in favor of the law on the floor of the Senate, calling it necessary “to give full protection to the religious freedom of physicians and others.”
A Democrat-controlled Congress added additional “so-called conscience protections” to the Church Amendment for these individual medical professionals and in federally funded programs over the next few years. The idea that these laws were controversial would have been a surprise to the bipartisan coalitions in Congress voting for them.
In 1992, Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, testified in favor of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (yep, you read that correctly), saying RFRA would protect “such familiar practices as . . . permitting religiously sponsored hospitals to decline to provide abortion or contraception services.” The ACLU didn’t think conscience was either “so-called” or “controversial” in 1992.
In 1996, a bipartisan Congress again defended conscience rights, enacting the Coats-Snowe Amendment to the Public Health Services Act with President Bill Clinton’s signature. This law prohibits the federal government and any state or local government receiving federal funds (i.e., all of them) from discriminating against physicians or health-training programs or their participants on the basis that they don’t provide or undergo abortion training or perform or refer for abortions.
Forty-seven states have enacted laws protecting medical professionals from being discriminated against because of their objection to participating in abortion, most of those becoming law in the years immediately following Roe.
Or Politico Writers Could, You Know, Read Roe v. Wade
But everything above is just icing on the cake. Politico could have confirmed its narrative was false just by reading Roe. Addressing the concern that this new right to an abortion might result in attempts to force medical professionals to perform them, the Supreme Court explained this wouldn’t happen because the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates had already broadly defended the exercise of religious and moral conscience in the abortion context, quoting it in Roe:
Be it … resolved that no physician or other professional personnel shall be compelled to perform any act which violates his good medical judgment. Neither physician, hospital, nor hospital personnel shall be required to perform any act violative of personally held moral principles. In these circumstances good medical practice requires only that the physician or other professional personnel withdraw from the case so long as the withdrawal is consistent with good medical practice.
In the companion case Doe v. Bolton, the Supreme Court called a state law allowing hospitals not to admit patients for abortions and prohibiting them from requiring medical professionals to assist in them an “appropriate protection to the individual and to the denominational hospital.”
There is simply no historical ground upon which Politico can claim that protecting the right of medical professionals not to participate in abortion was “controversial” at the time of Roe or in the decades thereafter. It has only become “controversial” to defend the right of people to think differently and to live according to their own moral compass when the political left recently abandoned this classically liberal principle in favor of government compulsion.
The whole article reads like a horror movie in search of a villain. Its writers and interviewees know that HHS committing resources to safeguard the conscience of medical professionals and institutions that deliver health services to Americans is an evil plot. They just don’t know how. So the authors introduce the reader to none of these laws (available on the HHS Office of Civil Rights website with handy links), vaguely assert that all of this is really about LGBT issues (it’s not), and try to make boogey-men of those in this new office.
What Politico doesn’t do is inform readers that those advocating for government to compel medical professionals to perform abortions are actually the ones advocating for a departure from our historical common ground of respecting one another’s conscience. That, apparently, would complicate the narrative.