James Madison once wrote that “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” Sadly, over the course of the Obama administration, there has been an effort to strip away this most precious right when it is pitted against preferred liberal causes, such as abortion.
Whatever you think about abortion, no one should be forced to take part in an action that they believe is morally wrong. Even when the Supreme Court invented a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, it recognized in the companion case, Doe v. Bolton, that “a physician or any other employee has the right to refrain, for moral or religious reasons, from participating in the abortion procedure.”
Indeed, today there are three separate federal laws that are designed to protect this right to conscience for those in the health care industry: the Church Amendment, the Coats-Snowe Amendment, and the Weldon Amendment.
In the hands of the Obama administration, however, these protections have been eroded. Consider the case of Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo, a pro-life nurse in New York, who was forced to choose between helping with an abortion and losing her job and nursing license.
Speaking at a press conference alongside Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., in 2013, Cenzon-DeCarlo explained, “My duties as a nurse included being present for the bloody dismemberment and accounting for body parts afterwards … It was like a horror film unfolding.”
Under federal law, 42. U.S.C. §300a-7, this type of coercion is illegal, but Cenzon-DeCarlo’s only legal recourse was to file a complaint with the federal government. (She filed a lawsuit, but a federal court tossed it out on the grounds that §300 does not include a private right of action). Cenzon-DeCarlo had to wait almost three years for the government to investigate her claims. Luckily, the investigation encouraged the hospital to agree to comply with the conscience protection laws.
Similarly, California now mandates that health insurers include elective abortions in their plans, even if customers (such as churches) object to including such coverage in their specific plans.
Several pro-life organizations, religious groups, and churches filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights challenging this requirement as a violation the Weldon Amendment, which forbids states that receive federal funding for health-related activities from discriminating against health care entities “on the basis that [the entity] does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”
This amendment, a condition tied to HHS’ funding since 2005, was designed to protect health care providers who choose not to cover abortions. Included in the definition of “health care entities” are doctors, other medical personnel, hospitals, and health insurance plans, among others.
Yet, in June, HHS’ Office of Civil Rights announced that California had not run afoul of this prohibition because the insurance companies themselves had no religious objection to offering plans that include abortions—a requirement not found in the Weldon Amendment. This interpretation leaves Californians without pro-life insurance options, simply because of the Obama administration’s contorted interpretation of the amendment.
The U.S. House of Representatives aims to solve this problem with the Conscience Protection Act. It would create a private right of action for violations of the Weldon Amendment. This means that, instead of waiting for the government to act on a complaint filed with the Department of Health and Human Services, individuals can bring a civil suit in federal court to vindicate their right to act in accordance with their conscience. Black, who offered the bill as an amendment to the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act, explained:
Congress must step in to clarify and strengthen our laws so that the conscience rights of every American are protected … 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.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also emphasized the need for legislation like this:
There have been cases of nurses being suspended or threatened with firing solely for the offense of following their conscience. And now, the state of California requires all health insurance plans to cover abortion. … Allowing this trend to continue will only erode our First Amendment rights even further. It will continue to push people of faith onto the sidelines of society.
This bill, which the House passed in July, is a step in the right direction. People should not be forced to choose between their livelihood and their faith—and they should not be discriminated against for choosing to act in accordance with their beliefs.
The troubling trend of marginalizing religious believers, attempting to restrict religious exercise to within the four walls of a house of worship, and stripping Americans of their right to conscience has been a hallmark of the last eight years, and one that will only continue if Americans do not stand up for the right to act according to their conscience. Madison explained, “As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”
And the right to act in accordance with one’s conscience is one worth defending.