COLUMN: Protect Conscience Rights and Human Life

July 25, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

Freedom of conscience and religious liberty have been bedrock principles of our republic since our founding. In 1809, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” Clearly, this freedom goes beyond simply protecting holding a belief in one’s own heart or merely thinking about a concept. It protects acting as well. If we are to continue to hold these constitutional freedoms, then we must act to safeguard them. As a firm supporter of conscience rights as well as protecting the lives of the unborn, I take protecting these constitutional rights from government intrusion very seriously.

Protecting conscience has long been a bipartisan effort. The Hyde Amendment is a provision of law that has barred the use of federal funds for abortions since 1976, gaining support from both sides of the political aisle. The Hyde Amendment requires annual reauthorization by Congress, and I supported it and will continue to do so. Because taxpayers should not be forced to fund abortions. 

In his address at Notre Dame in 2009, President Obama said, “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion.” I, like many Americans, agree with the president on this point. To put actions to those words, I recently supported passage of the Conscience Protection Act to protect pro-life health care providers from forced complicity in abortion.

This legislation is needed as conscience rights are threatened today. Since 1977, a bipartisan provision in law called the Weldon Amendment has provided protection for pro-life entities from discrimination when federal, state, or local governments withhold funds. Like the Hyde Amendment, it must be reauthorized annually, which I have supported. This protection is under attack because the Obama Administration is refusing to enforce it. The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is currently responsible for ruling on violations of the Weldon Amendment, but OCR recently interpreted the it to allow a California mandate that requires insurance and health providers to provide for abortions with no exceptions for conscience. The Conscience Protection Act would address this clear government coercion, in violation of conscience rights, by opening access to the courts when there is discrimination against individuals or entities who refuse to participate in abortions.

If the federal government can coerce or discriminate against those who act in a way that violates their conscience, then how can we be said to be free? For individuals and entities to act in compliance with their beliefs is the definition of freedom. James Madison went as far as to say that the property of an individual’s conscience is even “more sacred than his castle.” Just as the Hyde and Weldon amendments are necessary to protect unborn lives, the Conscience Protection Act is needed to safeguard the same rights of conscience that Americans have held dear for our history.