Protecting Conscience Rights

By Senator Mike Johanns

When President Obama delivered the Commencement Address at the University of Notre Dame in May 2009, he said, “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science.” Yet in the months and years since then, the actions and policies of his Administration have pursued exactly the opposite. His health care law fails to protect conscience rights, despite promises to the contrary. Since the law was enacted, I have repeatedly called on the Administration to live up to its previous promise to protect conscience rights and pressed for legislation to ensure such protections.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently proposed a rule to implement the new health care law requiring all new health insurance plans to provide contraceptives and the “morning after” pill at no cost to the patient. Supporters claimed it included a “religious exemption” clause, but this exemption was so narrow as to render it almost entirely meaningless. Many religious hospitals, universities, businesses, social services and charities with faith-based missions, serving diverse populations, would still be subject to the requirement.

Earlier this month, I held a meeting in Nebraska with a group of advocates fighting to protect life in our state. One of their biggest concerns is that the current health care law could force them to choose between their deepest convictions and providing health care coverage. This is exactly what a religious exemption should be designed to prevent.

Pat McCarthy is the executive director of the Lincoln Crisis Pregnancy Center. His organization helps women through unplanned pregnancies. While McCarthy believes in giving them the full truth on all their options, he doesn’t believe his center should be forced to refer these women for abortions. “There’s got to be room for people’s heartfelt beliefs,” McCarthy told me.

I also met with Michelle Sullivan, the executive director of the AAA Center for Pregnancy Counseling. Michelle’s own daughter is studying to be a nurse and has expressed that if she were forced to assist in an abortion, she would just as soon quit her chosen profession.

I cosponsored legislation to repeal the health care law and I voted for repeal on the Senate floor. The law simply represents a broken promise to all those organizations which were told their conscience rights would be protected. It’s the latest way in which supporters of the health care law promised one thing, and reality turned out to be disturbingly different.

This case and the many concerns I’m hearing have prompted me to cosponsor several bills to protect our religious and conscience freedoms, including the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA) and the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. My hope is this legislation will provide a robust foundation and needed clarity to current federal conscience rights laws by giving health care providers who object to abortion a clearly defined option to remain true to their convictions.

President Obama was right. We should honor the consciences of those who disagree with abortion. We must do so with more than empty campaign speeches. Actions speak much louder.

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