Conscience rights debate reignited by abortion funds bill

A bill designed to ensure that the healthcare reform law does not fund abortion services is reigniting a debate over a healthcare provider’s right to refuse abortion services.

The “Protect Life Act,” sponsored by Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), would specify that healthcare reform funding could not be used for abortion services. Included in the new bill is a provision that says the federal government could not withhold funding from a healthcare entity that refuses to perform, participate in, provide coverage of, or pay for induced abortions.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, says the provision would allow hospitals to deny abortion care in situations when the mother’s life may be in danger.

“This new Congress, in just its first month of work, has taken perhaps some of the most radical positions against abortion that I have ever seen,” said NARAL policy director Donna Crane.

However, a Pitts spokesman said the bill’s language is similar to “conscience rights” protections provided by other abortion legislation, including the 1976 Hyde Amendment and the 2004 Hyde-Weldon Amendment. The Hyde Amendment, which must be approved by Congress each year, bans the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. The Hyde-Weldon Amendment, passed by a Republican-controlled Congress in 2004, ensures that the federal government could not withhold funds from caregivers opposed to providing abortions.

“NARAL and other abortion rights groups have vigorously opposed any conscience protection legislation,” Pitts spokesman Andrew Wimer told The Hill. “It is no surprise that they would attack the Protect Life Act with the same old talking points.”

NARAL said that the bill doesn’t clarify whether healthcare entities must provide abortion care for women in life-threatening situations in accordance with the 1986 Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA).

“Is it truly Rep. Pitts’ position that a woman should die at the entrance of a hospital that refuses to provide abortion care necessary to save her life?” Crane said.

Conscience rights grabbed headlines in December after an Arizona hospital lost its Catholic status because it provided an emergency abortion procedure to save a woman’s life. At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to ensure that Catholic hospitals comply with EMTALA.

“The diocese cannot be permitted to dictate who lives and who dies in Catholic-owned hospitals,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to CMS.

Some politicians have called for cooled rhetoric in light of the Arizona shooting that left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) seriously wounded, but the debate over conscience rights will put that call for civility to the test. A House subpanel is scheduled to hold the new Congress’s first hearing on the Pitts-Lipinski bill Wednesday.

Abortion-rights groups earlier this week objected to language in other abortion legislation that seemingly made a distinction between “forcible rape” and “rape.” That sparked an outcry from women’s groups until the language was eventually removed.