Catholic Groups Fear Abortion Rights Bill

By Arnoldy, Ben | The Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

Catholic Groups Fear Abortion Rights Bill


Arnoldy, Ben, The Christian Science Monitor


First on the Obama administration's to-do list: a stimulus package, bailouts, and ... abortion? Given the imperatives of the economic crisis, picking an abortion fight early on would seem highly unlikely.

But the Roman Catholic Church is coordinating a national postcard campaign next month to oppose the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). Abortion opponents fear the new Democratic majority in Washington could succeed in passing the decades-old bill and Barack Obama would make good on what he told Planned Parenthood in July: "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act."

The bill could wipe out federal and state restrictions on abortion such as parental notification and informed consent laws. Some say FOCA is so broad it would also imperil "conscience clauses" that protect hospitals and doctors who refuse to perform abortions because of their convictions. That's led some Catholic leaders to threaten to close their hospitals if FOCA forced them to provide abortions.

Rhetoric aside, it's not certain that FOCA will move in Congress, much less get passed in its current form. Scholars are divided on whether the current bill actually jeopardizes conscience clauses - though they agree it is too vague.

"Congress should darn well clarify this, because if we don't, we will be back where we were when Roe came down and everyone was thrown into a tailspin," says Robin Wilson, an expert on conscience clauses at the University of Maryland's law school.

When the Supreme Court legalized abortion, lawsuits began to fly over whether doctors and hospitals could refuse to provide the procedure. Legislators settled the question by passing conscience clauses in 47 states. These seek to balance an individual's or institution's freedom of conscience with patients' access to healthcare.

If FOCA undermines conscience clauses - Dr. Wilson says she's not sure it would - "the floodgates would be opened" for litigation against hospitals and doctors refusing procedures.

Current iterations of FOCA don't mention conscience clauses, but in 1993, the last time there was a push on it, the bill was amended to protect the clauses but ultimately failed.

"It was acknowledged by all sides this was [a danger] of the FOCA. And, in fact, the current FOCA is even broader than that one," says Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

The current bill states that "a government may not deny or interfere with a woman's right to choose" nor "discriminate against the exercise" of that right. The words "interfere" and "discriminate" jeopardize conscience clauses for Mr. Johnson.

Conscience clauses tend to protect decisions made by doctors and hospitals, not the state.

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