House Advances Bill Providing Protections for Health Care Workers Who Refuse to Perform Abortions

CongressWASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives has advanced a bill providing conscience protections for health care workers who refuse to perform or participate in abortions.

“Whoever you are, whatever you believe, I think this is one thing we can all agree on: No one should be forced to violate their conscience — least of all by the federal government,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “That’s all this bill says.”

The main portion of the legislation, S. 304, declares that “the federal government, and any state or local government that receives federal financial assistance, may not penalize, retaliate against, or otherwise discriminate against a health care provider on the basis that the provider does not (1) perform, refer for, pay for, or otherwise participate in abortion; 3 (2) provide or sponsor abortion coverage; or (3) facilitate or make arrangements for any of the activities specified in this subsection.”

Voting on the matter was mainly along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

“Congress needs to stop interfering in women’s health decisions once and for all,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Co.) argued on the House floor.

“Congress must step in to clarify and strengthen our laws so that the conscience rights of every American are protected, because … if we lose the right to live according to our own convictions, particularly on a matter as deeply affecting as abortion, we don’t have much left do we?” said Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.)

Ultimately, the bill was advanced 245-182 with three Democrats voting in favor and one Republican voting against the legislation.

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Health Subcommittee Chairman Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) released a statement following the vote explaining that the measure simply provides reinforcement to existing federal law.

“The Conscience Protection Act would simply make the protections of the Weldon conscience amendment permanent and more effective,” he said. “The Weldon amendment has been the law of the land, and it has been approved by Congress as part of the appropriations process every year since 2004.”

As previously reported, the Weldon Amendment was at the center of discussion in 2014 when the California Department of Managed Health Care issued a letter requiring insurance companies in the state to cover abortions, and thus forcing all faith-based employers to likewise offer abortion coverage regardless of their religious beliefs.

“Abortion is a basic health care service,” director Michelle Rouillard wrote to seven insurance companies that refused to offer coverage. “All health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally.”

She asserted that abortion must be covered because the “California Constitution prohibits health plans from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy,” and also cited a 1975 law surrounding “medically necessary” health care.

But the groups Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and the Life Legal Defense Foundation asserted that the department’s mandate violated the Weldon Amendment, and sent a rebuttal letter on calling for a retraction under threat of a federal lawsuit.

“Faith-based organizations should be free to operate according to the faith they espouse and live out on a daily basis,” said ADF Senor Legal Counsel Matthew Bowman. “When Congress enacted the Weldon Amendment, it sought to ensure that the government could never strong-arm pro-life employers into paying for abortion coverage; therefore, California’s decision is illegal. No state can ignore federal law in a pursuit to conform everyone to the state’s own ideology on abortion.”

The groups sued and the case is still working its way through the courts.

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