Catholic groups fear abortion rights bill
But it's unclear if the Freedom of Choice Act imperils a doctor's right not to perform the procedure.
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Conscience clauses tend to protect decisions made by doctors and hospitals, not the state. That leads some experts such as Nancy Berlinger of the Hasting Center, a bioethics research institution, to doubt that FOCA would apply since it is specifically directed at government action.Skip to next paragraph
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Lynn Wardle, a law professor at Brigham Young University, sees that argument in principle, not practice. "I'm torn about this because I think good, solid legal analysis would say, no, that's not government action," he says. "But I'm pro-life and that's the way I view it, and this law [would be] enacted by and enforced by people who view any restriction as an interference."
Many faiths oppose abortion, but few of them are so involved in providing healthcare as the Catholic Church. One out of every 6 Americans hospitalized in the US receive care at a Catholic facility.
At a gathering of US Catholic bishops last month, Bishop Thomas Paprocki told the Chicago Tribune: "If Catholic hospitals were required by federal law to perform abortions, we'd have to close our hospitals."
That could leave a hole in the safety net for inner cities and the poor. But the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is not backing off from its threat.
"I hope it would not come to that, but Catholic hospitals cannot give up their identity," says Deirdre McQuade, a USCCB spokesperson.
The Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals, says it plans to fight against FOCA but won't close up shop if it loses. "In many communities, we are the only health facility. We in Catholic health care are not going to dismantle that," said Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the CHA, in a press release.
Both Mr. Obama and the bishops are just playing to an audience, says the Rev. John Paris, a Catholic bioethics expert at Boston College. "[A]ll this rhetoric is so overblown as to be silly," he says. "No political office is going to strike down conscience clauses. That's been in our laws since 1673," when Rhode Island protected wartime objectors.
Underlying that history is the protection of religious freedoms, a principle that would come into play under any interpretation of FOCA invalidating conscience clauses, says Doug Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University.
That's one reason why Mr. Kmiec, an abortion rights opponent who controversially endorsed Obama, doesn't think FOCA is a clear threat to conscience clauses. "[Obama's] approach is to give emphasis to reducing the incidents of abortion," says Kmiec. "My conversations with his [advisers] tell me he's not going to push anything in his legislative agenda that's going to distract him from the economic recovery, certainly for the first year. Beyond that, nobody is saying anything."