Bishops urge action on conscience protection for health care workers

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The chairmen of the U.S. bishops' pro-life and religious freedom committees have asked U.S. Catholics to contact members of Congress and urge them to enact the Conscience Protection Act as part of the funding bill for fiscal year 2018.

Congress faces a March 23 deadline to approve an omnibus appropriations measure that likely would fund the government through the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Lawmakers will consider whether to include the Conscience Protection Act of 2017 in the bill.

"Increasing and fierce attacks on conscience rights regarding abortion cry out for an immediate remedy," said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, chair of the Committee for Religious Liberty.

In a joint statement March 6, they urged Catholics to flood Congress with emails and calls asking for enactment of the measure and "to pray for this outcome." They expected Congress to take action the week of March 12.

Catholics were encouraged to reach their members of Congress in one of two ways: calling the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and asking to be connected with their representative or senator; or sending them an email message via the Human Life Action website — http://bit.ly/2lHt7vu.

"Nurses and other health care providers and institutions are being forced to choose between participating in abortions or leaving health care altogether," Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Kurtz said. "Churches and pro-life Americans are being forced to provide coverage for elective abortions — including late-term abortions — in their health care plans."

"No one should be forced to choose between following the dictates of their conscience and losing their job," said Karen Nolkemper, executive director of the St. Louis archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate. "Despite federal laws on the books to protect them, men and women are still being coerced to participate in abortions. We hope Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis will respond to this call by urging our federal representatives to support better enforcement of these laws."

The Weldon Amendment, included in the annual appropriation for the Department of Health and Human Services since 2005, already allows health care providers as well as insurance plans to refuse to provide abortions, pay for them or refer women to abortion clinics.

The Conscience Protection Act is aimed at protecting individual physicians, nurses or other health care professionals who refuse to assist in abortions when asked to do so by their employers. It takes the core policy of Weldon — protecting those who decline to perform, pay for, refer for, or provide coverage for abortion — and writes it into permanent law.

"Opponents and supporters of abortion should be able to agree that no one should be forced to participate in abortion," Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Kurtz said. "Congress must remedy this problem by enacting the Conscience Protection Act now as part of the fiscal year 2018 funding bill."

The measure was introduced in the House by Rep. Diane Black, R-Tennessee, and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, and in the Senate by Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma. The House passed an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 that includes the language of the Conscience Protection Act but the Senate didn't pass an appropriations bill.

In January, the civil rights office of the federal Department of Health and Human Services put in place new policies to protect conscience rights and religious freedom," a move that won praise from Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Kurtz.

But they also said a legislative solution was needed.

"Conscience protection should not be subject to political whims, however. Permanent legislative relief is essential," they said in a Jan. 19 statement. They urged action on the Conscience Protection Act to give victims of discrimination "the ability to defend their rights in court."

"No one should be forced to violate their deeply held convictions about the sanctity of human life," they said. 

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