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Bishops hail medical conscience protection by Trump administration

CNA 53601c18923c3 29408 1 Cardinal Timothy Dolan. / Stephen Driscoll/CNA

Leading U.S. bishops applauded the Trump administration Thursday for enforcing conscience protections in health care.

At the White House on Wednesday, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar said the agency would withhold $200 million in Medicaid funds to California over its mandate that employers cover abortions in health plans—despite the objections of pro-life and Christian organizations subject to the mandate.

The administration also announced it would be enforcing another case through the HHS Office for Civil Rights on Wednesday. The Justice Department will file a lawsuit against the University of Vermont Medical Center, after a nurse was reportedly forced to assist in an abortion there, and after the hospital refused to adjust its policy to allow for conscientious opt-outs for staff opposed to abortions.

In response, on Thursday the U.S. bishops’ religious freedom and pro-life chairs—Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City—praised the actions as “concrete steps to enforce long-standing and fundamental civil rights laws.”

The bishops said that “it is an abhorrent violation of conscience rights to force someone to perform, pay for, or otherwise participate in an abortion against their beliefs,” and added that “[s]adly, violations of these laws have increased in recent years.”

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Alluding to the incoming Biden administration, they expressed their hope that federal agencies continue to enforce conscience protections.

“And because the right of freedom of conscience does not diminish as administrations change, we hope that today’s actions to enforce these crucial federal conscience laws will be sustained until the violators come into compliance,” Dolan and Naumann stated.

On Wednesday, Secretary Azar said the agency was “tasked with making sure our conscience and religious freedom laws are never again treated like second-class rights.”

In 2014, the state required employers to cover abortions, after two Catholic universities said they would stop covering elective abortions in employee health plans, and said they had state approval for new health plans.

Pro-life and religious groups brought a complaint to the Obama HHS in 2016, saying they were not exempt from the mandate; the HHS concluded that California had not violated the law.

The Weldon Amendment, enacted in 2005, prevents federal funds from going to state and local governments which require objecting health care entities—including health plans—to cover, pay for, or refer for abortions.

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Under the Trump administration, more groups brought a complaint to the HHS, including the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit, a Catholic community of consecrated women who live with and serve the poor, and which is headquartered in Los Angeles.

In January of 2020, the HHS Office for Civil Rights concluded that California had violated the Weldon Amendment and gave the state 30 days to comply with the law.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra—now the appointee to become the next HHS Secretary—refused to comply with the HHS demand, saying that the state “has the sovereign right to protect women’s reproductive rights.”

On Wednesday, Azar said that the agency “informed California that this policy clearly violates federal conscience laws, but the state refuses to fix the issue and comply.”

“Accordingly, we plan to withhold $200 million in federal Medicaid funds in the first quarter of 2021, and unless California amends its policies, we will seek to withhold an additional $200 million every quarter until it complies,” Azar said.

The announcement comes just weeks before President-elect Biden will take office. If Becerra is confirmed as HHS Secretary, he is expected to continue allowing California to access the Medicaid funds.

In August of 2019, the HHS OCR issued a notice of violation to the University of Vermont Medical Center over the abortion case. The office gave the university 30 days to begin working on a new policy to allow staff conscientiously opposed to abortion to opt out of participating in one, and to remedy the violation.

Azar on Wednesday also highlighted other measures the agency took to divert taxpayer dollars from abortion providers—the “Protect Life Rule” which required Title X recipients to not refer for abortions or be co-located with abortion clinics, and allowing states to withhold Medicaid funds to abortion providers.

He also pointed to other actions the agency took during the pandemic, including guidance that health care providers must not deny health care to someone simply based on their age or disability, and also helping ensure patients’ access to clergy at hospitals.

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