House approves bill to shield anti-abortion healthcare workers

House approves bill to shield anti-abortion healthcare workers
© Greg Nash

The House on Wednesday approved a controversial abortion bill that supporters say would help shield healthcare providers who refuse to perform the procedure on religious grounds.

Anti-abortion lawmakers, including the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackGOP lawmaker introduces bill to crowdfund border wall Budget chairman Womack eyes appropriations switch Black: Corker should ‘just sit back and be quiet’ MORE (R-Tenn.), say it would bar state or local governments from penalizing healthcare providers who decline to offer abortions.

Republicans say it would make clear that healthcare workers have a “right of conscience” that allows them to take legal action for any alleged discrimination, such as the withholding of funds.

Democrats blasted the bill as “unnecessary” and a “destructive” attack against the country's long-established right to an abortion. One senior Democrat, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), said the bill would allow doctors to withhold medical information if they believe it could potentially lead to an abortion.

The bill, which was passed along party lines 245-182, comes at an inflection point for the national fight over abortion rights and how the procedure should be covered, if at all, by health insurers.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Wednesday the legislation directly stems from a recent California policy that required health plans to cover elective abortions.

Anti-abortion activists challenged the measure, but officials at the Department of Health and Human Services closed their investigation last month without finding evidence the state had violated federal law.

For the last decade, Congress has approved budgetary language known as the Weldon Amendment, which offers protection to healthcare providers opposed to abortion because of their religion. Critics of California’s policy argue that it violated the amendment, and that the Obama administration should have withheld the state’s health grants until the policy was changed. 

“It literally started forcing people for performing abortions against their own faith,” Scalise said of the California law.

Scalise was among a handful of senior GOP lawmakers who offered support for the bill on the House floor, including Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDischarge petition efforts intensify as leadership seeks unity Republicans fear retribution for joining immigration revolt Immigration petition hits 204 as new Republican signs on MORE (Wis.), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and House GOP Conference Chairwomen Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersFreedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights Millennial GOP lawmakers pleased with McMorris Rodgers meeting on party messaging The Hill's Morning Report: Trump’s Cabinet mess MORE (Wash.).

Without more protection, Ryan warned that California’s bill could open the floodgates for similar policies in other liberal-leaning states.  

“If we keep going down this path in this country, we will only erode our First Amendment rights forward. It will continue to push people of faith into the sidelines of this society,” Ryan said.

He pressed Democrats to support the bill: “I think we can all agree that in this country, no one should be forced to perform an abortion.”

While the party-line bill stands little chance of passage in the Senate, it could help House Republicans on the campaign trail this fall in a year when they have few other legislative victories for the anti-abortion cause.

Under current law, healthcare providers can file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services if they feel they have been forced to perform abortions against their will. The new bill, which was first passed in the House in 2003, would allow individuals to file civil lawsuits without first going through the administration.