New policies put in place by the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services won praise from two former presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

U.S. toughens protection of doctors’ conscience rights

New policies put in place by the civil rights office of the federal Department of Health and Human Services won praise from two former presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We applaud HHS for its significant actions to protect conscience rights and religious freedom,” said a joint Jan. 19 statement by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, now chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, chair of their Committee for Religious Liberty.

“We are grateful that HHS is taking seriously its charge to protect these fundamental civil rights through formation of a new division dedicated to protecting conscience rights and religious freedom,” they said.

“Conscience protection should not be subject to political whims, however. Permanent legislative relief is essential,” added Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Kurtz.

“We urge Congress to pass the Conscience Protection Act in order to give victims of discrimination the ability to defend their rights in court. No one should be forced to violate their deeply held convictions about the sanctity of human life.”

The two churchmen said, “We also appreciate the (Trump) administration’s action to rescind a 2016 guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that required states to provide Medicaid funding to family planning providers like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions.”

Trump’s executive actions were unveiled Jan. 18.

Greater conscience protections for medical professionals has long been sought by those in the pro-life movement.

The first federal conscience protection legislation got on the books with the Church Amendment in 1973’s Public Health Service Act, which declared that hospitals or individuals’ receipt of federal funds in various health programs did not require them to participate in abortion and sterilization procedures, and forbade hospitals to make willingness or unwillingness to perform these procedures a condition of employment.

A 1974 bill banned Legal Services Corporation funds from being used to compel involvement in abortion.

And a clause in a foreign aid allocation bill, first passed in 1968 and renewed each year since, barred discrimination against foreign aid grant applicants who offer natural family planning on account or religious or conscientious commitments.

Even the Affordable Care Act, still hotly debated nearly eight years after its passage, allowed health plans to choose to not cover abortion, and prevented them from discriminating against health care providers who are not involved in abortion.