By Jon O’Brien
Abortion is a difficult issue, made even more so by several recent emotionally and politically charged debates. A prime contributor to this noxious environment is antichoice legislation, such as the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (HR 3), which was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ).
Smith has repeatedly shown that he does not respect women’s ability to make their own reproductive health care decisions and believes government should be a party to the private deliberations women and their families make about health care. And, while Smith and his cosponsor, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-lll.), are both Catholics, their proposed legislation runs contrary to the beliefs of American Catholics in regard to abortion access.
Expressing support for the Smith-Lipinski bill, the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities recently wrote to Congress. The letter clearly outlines the U.S. bishops’ opinion, but it does not represent the opinion of the majority of the 68 million American Catholics nor, in fact, the views of the majority of Americans.
Despite what the U.S. bishops would like us to believe, American Catholics support the right of women and men in good conscience to make important reproductive health care decisions for themselves.
The bishops’ position–opposing abortion in every instance, even in cases of rape, incest or when an abortion is necessary to preserve a woman’s health or life–is shared by fewer than 15 percent of American Catholic voters, and according to the bishops’ own polling, by only 11 percent of the American populace.
HR 3 is bad for women’s health. It will enact into law unreasonable obstacles to safe and legal health care for American women–including lower-income and other vulnerable women–who access health care through our nation’s safety net programs. These include women in military families, women who seek care through the Indian Health Service and women whose insurance is in any way affiliated with the government. The effect of this ban would be that women who are already facing challenges accessing health-care services will have to overcome additional delays and costs to receive the health care they need. This would be a major setback for women’s health and for the stability of the families who rely on our nation’s safety nets to bolster them in times of need.
HR 3 also expands so-called conscience clauses, more accurately called refusal clauses. The bill establishes an unbalanced preference for those who would refuse to provide services over both those who wish to provide comprehensive services to their patients and those patients who need access to safe and legal services and medications. These more stringent restrictions expand the right of refusal to include any health care entity, including HMOs and insurance plans as well as hospitals and clinics.
Expanding the right of refusal and those who could claim this right would result in Americans being denied the ordinary, legal, safe and reasonable health care they need and deserve, and it would tie the hands of doctors and nurses who want to provide that care.
On this issue as well, U.S. Catholics disagree with the bishops. A September 2009 poll by Belden
Russonello & Stewart found Catholic voters are against refusal or “conscience” clauses for institutions that take federal funding. Sixty-five percent said that hospitals and clinics that take taxpayer dollars should not be allowed to refuse certain procedures or medications based on religious beliefs.
I recognize and support the right of individual health care providers to decline to provide services to which they object on moral grounds. However, it is nonsensical to assert that institutions or health systems or even insurance providers have such a right, as indeed, they have no conscience to protect–only an individual can have a conscience. Not only does this blatantly disrespect the conscience of patients who present in health care facilities seeking care, either by design or by accident as in cases of emergencies. It also replaces the decision of doctors and patients with that of religious leaders without medical expertise. Enacting HR 3 would result in Americans being denied the ordinary, legal, safe and reasonable health care they need and deserve, and it would tie the hands of doctors and nurses who want to provide that care.
Our Catholic social justice tradition encourages us to advocate for the poor, and our intellectual tradition requires our respect for conscience-based decisions people make about their lives, including decisions about reproductive health. Catholics support policies that enable women to make decisions about whether to become pregnant or whether to continue a pregnancy. Large majorities of Catholic voters support access to and coverage for abortions–either in private- or government-run health systems.
Catholic support for family planning and abortion is grounded in the core principles of Catholicism, which respect the moral agency of all people and their right to follow their consciences on all matters. HR 3 is bad for women’s health and for the wellbeing of American families. The US bishops support legislation such as this because they have failed to convince Catholics in the pews of the value of their antichoice agenda. Legislators should not be taken in by their arguments and should listen to those who elected them, and not a small handful of religious leaders.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.