Thursday, March 19, 2009

Catholic leaders criticize threat to health 'conscience rights'

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien

The possibility that federal "Provider Conscience Protection" for health professionals who decline to participate in abortions might be rescinded drew sharp criticism from Catholic leaders.

Warning that a failure to protect conscience rights would move the country "from democracy to despotism," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago urged U.S. Catholics to tell the Obama administration that they "want conscience protections to remain strongly in place."

"No government should come between an individual person and God --- that's what America is supposed to be about," said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a videotaped message available on the USCCB Web site at and on YouTube at

"This is the true common ground for us as Americans," he added. "We therefore need legal protections for freedom of conscience and of religion --- including freedom for religious health care institutions to be true to themselves."

Cardinal George was urging public comment by April 9 on an effort to rescind a regulation of the Department of Health and Human Services. The rule codifies several existing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination against health professionals who decline to participate in abortions or other medical procedures because of their religious or other moral objections.

HHS opened a 30-day comment period on the proposed rescission March 10. The regulation took effect two days before President Barack Obama took office.

"This may be the first step in a broader effort to repeal the federal conscience laws," said William J. Cox, president and CEO of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, a Sacramento-based organization comprised of nine Catholic health care systems in California.

The Hyde/Weldon Amendment, which specifically protects health care providers from discrimination, can be repealed by the simple expedient of not including it in next fiscal year's Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill, said Cox. Repeal of this amendment "is among the highest priorities of so-called 'pro-choice" groups,'" he said.

Its repeal would expose Catholic and other providers to renewed efforts in certain states to force them to provide and refer for abortion and/or include abortion coverage in their employer provided health insurance plans, Cox added. All of this also "raises important questions" about how provider conscience rights will or will not be protected in a reformed health care system.

"It's worth emphasizing," Cox said, "that if the term 'pro-choice' means anything at all it must apply equally both to those who support abortion and those who conscientiously object to it. The federal provider conscience protection laws and regulations are on a par with similar polices that protect conscientious objectors to war from being forced to engage in combat and physicians who conscientiously object to capital punishment from being compelled to assist state sanctioned executions."

Cardinal George said the issue centers on "two principles or ideas that have been basic to life in our country: religious liberty and the freedom of personal conscience."

He noted, as did Cox, that conscientious objection has been allowed for those opposed to participating in a war, "even though it's good to defend your country," and for doctors who do not want to be involved in administering the death penalty.

"Why shouldn't our government and our legal system permit conscientious objection to a morally bad action, the killing of babies in their mother's womb?" Cardinal George asked. "People understand what really happens in an abortion and in related procedures --- a living member of the human family is killed --- ... and no one should be forced by the government to act as though he or she were blind to this reality."

He urged Catholics to tell the Department of Health and Human Services "that you stand for the protection of conscience, especially now for those who provide the health care services so necessary for a good society."

Comments on the proposed HHS rule change may be submitted through an action alert at, on the Web site (by entering 0991-AB49 in the search box) or via e-mail to Attachments may be in Microsoft Word, WordPerfect or Excel, but Microsoft Word is preferred.

By mail, one original and two copies of written comments may be sent to: Office of Public Health and Science, Department of Health and Human Services, Attention: Rescission Proposal Comments, Hubert H. Humphrey Building, 200 Independence Ave. SW, Room 716G, Washington, DC 20201.