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Biden Can (And Should) Safeguard the Conscience Rights of Americans Opposed to Abortion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

It’s a bit of an irony that Joe Biden, who has resounding support from “reproductive rights” advocates is publicly calling for “unity” and that the theme for this year’s March For Life is “Together Strong: Life Unites!” Then again, the thing about ironies is they, too, can be ironic. There remains a unifying cause that both old-school liberals like Biden and pro-lifers can rally behind – safeguarding the conscience rights of Americans opposed to abortion. 


President Biden, unlike other younger politicians, has never been identified with what one might call, with only a slight exaggeration, the cultural vandalism of progressives. The litmus test for whether Biden will protect his agenda from them, I would suggest, will be his attitude to conscience rights. It would be a disaster if Biden were arm-twisted into dismantling these protections. 

Rights of conscience, which need not be rooted in religious allegiance, protect your ability to do what you believe is morally correct. These rights safeguard people against having to deny their core values or beliefs in order to conform to the demands of the noisiest voices in the surrounding culture – or of a government that takes it upon itself to dictate what is morally correct. They are of paramount importance in the United States, where abortion has the status of a constitutional right.

If Biden is not firmly committed to protecting conscience rights, then healthcare workers – nurses, doctors, pharmacists – may soon be subjected to overt or insidious pressure to perform, participate in or facilitate abortion against their sincerely held religious or moral beliefs. Private clinics and pharmacies may be threatened with fines or lose their license or funding if they refuse to promote the system of abortions – that is, not just performing them or assisting in them but also propelling women in the direction of abortion clinics by offering “counsel” to terminate a pregnancy. Private medical schools may be required to teach students about surgical and medical abortions. And medical students at public universities may be required to learn how to do abortions or participate in the same as part of their study of obstetrics. 


You'll notice that I've carefully used the word "may" when describing these situations. But, in practice, this is precisely what will happen if conscience rights are no longer protected. 

In the United States, people opposed to abortion find support under the law to operate consistent with their beliefs. Often they have to search for this support, but it is there. In addition to the historic civil liberties granted to us by the First Amendment, Congress has passed laws recognizing the conscience rights of those opposed to abortion.

Specifically, the Church Amendments protect the rights of individuals and entities that object to performing or assisting in abortions or sterilizations. And the Weldon Amendment prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating against healthcare entities that decline to “provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

More recently, the federal government has gone to quite exceptional lengths to protect conscience rights, in a response to what it perceived as a threat to freedom. This was an encouraging and perhaps rather surprising situation: the federal government protecting citizens from official institutions. Religious organizations were exempted  from a federal mandate to provide contraceptives —including abortifacients— in their employee health insurance plans. A special religious freedom and conscience rights division was set up within the Department of Health and Human Services. And last month, the Department of Justice brought a federal lawsuit against the University of Vermont Medical Center after administrators refused to stop violating the Church Amendments that horrifyingly forced at least one nurse to assist in an abortion against her will.


Most Americans still agree that a person or religious institution should not be forced to act against sincerely held beliefs regarding abortion. Many lawmakers who support abortion agree. But for how long? Progressives are opposed to this basic principle of common decency – and, alas, some of them will have a foothold in the new administration. So, put simply, if Joe Biden is sincere about his desire for unity, he must forge a crucial alliance with the pro-life community to protect conscience rights for Americans opposed to abortion. And he must do so immediately.     


Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is director of the Conscience Project, a project advancing conscience rights through public education and amicus support in religious freedom cases.

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