by Archbishop Thomas Wenski
In May 2009, President Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame University and received an honorary degree.
That Notre Dame would confer an honorary degree on an elected official who advances abortion rights in contradiction to Catholic teaching caused no small controversy among many Catholics throughout the United States.
Those who supported Notre Dame felt vindicated, however, when in his speech the president promised to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion,” stating that his administration would provide “sensible” protections for those who wanted no involvement in the procedure. This would presumably include health care providers, social service providers, and consumers who might otherwise have to pay through their health care plans for other people’s abortions. Obama later reiterated this position to Catholic newspaper editors, stating that he would make such protections “robust.”
Fast forward to late 2011, and the record shows that the president’s promises are not being kept. In fact, it seems that pro-life Catholics, such as Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak and Catholic Health Association’s Sister Carol Keenan — who trusted the administration’s position that abortion was not part of the health care bill — along with Notre Dame’s leadership have been played by the president.
In truth, his administration is running roughshod over conscience protection provisions long part of the law of our land that find their justification in the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, a foundational human right. It is one thing for an administration to support and promote an agenda; it is quite another to force those who disagree with it to violate their moral and religious principles.
The long line of evidence is disturbing. As a first step, the administration reversed earlier regulations enforcing federal conscience laws, stating, instead, that it would pursue the same goals by educational outreach on rights of conscience. In the final health care bill passed in March 2010, traditional protections for conscience rights were omitted; instead, a provision was included that would subjugate conscience rights to federal and state “emergency” service laws. In other words, any abortion declared an “emergency” (broadly defined) by a government requires a health care provider’s full cooperation, regardless of his or her views on the matter.
Moreover, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a rule which will require almost all health plans to include coverage for sterilization and contraception — including abortifacient drugs. This will force almost all employers — including Catholic organizations — to pay for such procedures, regardless of any moral objections. HHS seemingly wants to regard fertility as a disease — and elective abortion subsidized by the taxpayer as health care.
The most recent frontal assault on conscience rights has come in the form of federal contracts and grant announcements, which have begun to require grantees to help provide all legally permissible family planning and obstetric/ gynecological services, regardless of the provider. A large number of grants under the State Department’s AIDS program, for example, now require “integration” with family planning and “reproductive health” services, ignoring the conscience clause the program’s authorizing statute passed by Congress.
When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently said it could not meet a similar requirement inserted into an HHS grant announcement for services to human trafficking victims, and pointed out that the requirement violates existing federal conscience laws, its funding was discontinued — hurting victims of human trafficking, since few-if-any other entities have the track record and nationwide capacity to serve them.
Catholic social and health care providers — the largest private network in the nation — are at risk of being left out of all federal programs, despite their wellearned reputation for providing superlative service to the American public. In effect, the Obama administration is telling these Catholic providers to surrender their conscience rights and their Catholic ethos or shut their doors.
Regardless of one’s position on the morality of abortion, we — and elected officials on both sides of the aisle — should be concerned with these developments. If religious and conscience rights of some Americans can be violated by the state, everyone else’s rights are also in jeopardy.
This is unacceptable — for it undermines our nation’s promise of “freedom and justice for all.” The president should honor his pledges to U.S. Catholics — and other Americans — and instruct his agencies to reverse course and protect conscience rights.