WASHINGTON – Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said there is “wide support” among congressional Republicans for allowing medical professionals to pursue “legal action” if their personal anti-abortion beliefs are violated.
The Conscience Protection Act of 2017 would “amend the Public Health Service Act to prohibit governmental discrimination against providers of health services that are not involved in abortion.”
“Leadership will have to make the call on exactly when to be able to place it. I know [Mitch] McConnell is very pro-life as well, but this to me is not even an issue of being pro-life or not pro-life. This is allowing Americans to be able to live out their conscience and their values. Again, the conscience protection piece doesn’t stop with one abortion. It just allows individuals to say, ‘please don’t compel me to participate in that and to not have to,’” Lankford said at after a recent news conference on Capitol Hill. “There will be opposition by some. I mentally can’t understand why there would be opposition by some, but I’m sure there will be.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said conscience protection is “a civil rights issue.”
“You can’t coerce people,” he said after the press conference.
Smith slammed governors like Jerry Brown of California for requiring all private health insurance plans to include coverage for abortions. The state of New York has the same requirement. Brown has also expanded the kinds of providers who are able to perform abortions.
“In California, in Oregon, in New York, you have these governors, Jerry Brown, saying to every healthcare provider, everyone, you have to have abortion on demand paid for and subsidized by your plan or you are disqualified and we will bring punitive action against you,” Smith said. “That’s a violation of the conscience of faith people – and people who out of conscience, but they are not faith-oriented, who say, ‘I don’t want to be part of that.’”
A reporter pointed out that the current House and Senate appropriations bills differ in terms of conscience protection and other related healthcare issues.
“No great shock that the House and the Senate have different bills. We’ll get conference together to be able to negotiate those things. I think there are areas of common ground and I think conscience protection should be one of those areas of common ground. It doesn’t reduce a single abortion,” Lankford said. “It just doesn’t compel anyone to participate in it, and if they are being compelled it gives them access to the courts to be able to speak out and say, hey, this is a clear federal violation of my rights. And so I think that should be an area of common ground and it should not be as controversial as it has been made.”
Smith’s office told PJM the language of the House and Senate conscience protection bills are the same. So far, the bill passed as part of the House appropriations package. Lankford supported incorporating the legislative language into the Health and Human Services appropriations process in the Senate.
In 2016, Obama administration officials had rejected a complaint from anti-abortion organizations arguing that the “right of conscience” was being violated in California. The complaint mentioned that California was not in compliance with the Weldon Amendment, which states that no federal funds “may be made available to a Federal agency or program, or to a state or local government, if such agency, program, or government subjects any institutional or individual health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”
“There is no healthcare entity protected under the [right of conscience] statute that has asserted religious or moral objections to abortion and therefore there is no covered entity that has been subject to discrimination within the meaning of the Weldon Amendment,” Jocelyn Samuels, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote at the time, according to the L.A. Times.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has advocated for the conscience protection rights of nurses and other medical professionals. Smith said the bishops could sue the state of California and the case would go to the Supreme Court. He predicted that the Catholic Church would ultimately win.
Lankford and Smith called on the Senate to act on the 20-week abortion ban bill that has passed in the House. Smith urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to eliminate the legislative filibuster to push the bill through. He said Democrats would get rid of it anyway whenever they take back the Senate.
“They should function like every other parliament in the world,” Smith said. “Schumer is going to do it – take it to the bank. We should do it.”