Millions of Americans have a profound concern over abortion – they understand it as the killing of an innocent unborn child – which is a very serious matter. Federal laws have protected conscientious objections to such taking of innocent life over many years, ever since Roe v. Wade. Americans fundamentally understand that since Roe v. Wade, abortion is legal, but they also understand that some people have a right not to be involved in abortions— and that their conscience rights are what need further protection.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[n]o provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.” Our founding fathers prioritized protecting conscience rights; they understood that the right of conscience is inextricably linked to our first freedoms.
Unfortunately, people across the nation are being forced to violate their conscience regularly when it comes to providing or being forced to pay for abortions.
In 2009, a nurse named Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo working at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, filed a lawsuit against the hospital after it forced her to participate in a late term, 22-week abortion. Mt. Sinai is a recipient of nearly $375 million in federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, which, according to the federal Church Amendment, requires the hospital to abstain from requiring employees to participate in abortions if they morally object. Ms. Cenzon-DeCarlo filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)) about the hospital’s violation of this amendment, but HHS did not resolve her complaint. The hospital eventually changed its policy on its own in 2013.
Most recently, in 2014 the state of California required its health insurers to drop all plans that did not cover abortion. This requirement was in violation of the federal Weldon Amendment, which declares that states receiving federal funds may not discriminate against any healthcare entity that declines to participate in abortions (for any reason), including health insurers. When faith-based churches and schools in California filed a complaint with HHS’s Office of Civil Rights, saying that California violated the Weldon Amendment, HHS opened an 18 month-long investigation, then concluded that no violation of the Amendment had occurred.
Similar scenarios have occurred numerous times across the country, and we will hear from multiple participants Friday at the “Forum on Conscience Protections” whose statements corroborate this narrative.
Currently, the only course of action for those who face discrimination for refusing to participate in abortion is to file a complaint with HHS’s Office of Civil Rights. So far though, the Office has refused to uphold the law. In the case of California’s mandate on health insurers, the Office misinterpreted the Weldon Amendment so that it could allow California to continue with its pro-abortion agenda.
When discrimination based on other civil rights occurs, victims enjoy a “private right to action.” Such a right allows private parties to bring lawsuits against entities that discriminated against them.
HHS’s Office of Civil Rights is not an effective venue for protecting the right of individuals to conscientiously object to participating in abortion. Those who are forced and pressured to violate their conscience must have legitimate legal recourse if we are serious about protecting the freedoms that our forefathers established for us.
Next week, the House will vote on a bill that would codify two amendments that protect against this type of discrimination (the Hyde and Weldon Amendments) and provide a private right of action for those who experience conscience discrimination. The Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funds for abortion, and the Weldon Amendment protects entities and health plans that decline to be involved in the provision of abortions.
We take the violation of one’s ability to act according to his or her conscience seriously; the government must protect these freedoms and uphold the law.
The vote next week in the House on a conscience protection law is long overdue.