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On January 26, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published in the Federal Register (Vol. 83, pp. 3880 et seq.) a proposed rule to enforce 25 existing statutory conscience protections for Americans involved in HHS-funded programs, which protect people from being coerced into participating in activities that violate their consciences, such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide. Among the 25 conscience laws are the Church, Coats-Snowe, and Weldon Amendments. For more information on these laws click here.

Though these laws were passed on a bipartisan basis and have been on the books for years, certain legislators and abortion activists are becoming more emboldened to violate them, and the previous administration did not fully enforce them. This proposed rule seeks to ensure that these laws are enforced. As HHS noted in its press release, “The proposed rule provides practical protections for Americans’ conscience rights and is modelled on existing regulations for other civil rights laws.”

The proposed rule includes a public comment period of 60 days, which ends on March 27. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will soon be filing comments and this alert will be updated with a link to those comments once they are filed.

To avoid any confusion between this proposed rule and the Conscience Protection Act, it should be noted that this rule does not address or supplant the need for Congress to enact the CPA. This regulation, which can change from one Administration to the next, proposes various administrative means and remedies for HHS to better enforce existing laws. But these existing conscience laws provide only one avenue for relief if the laws are violated: filing a complaint with HHS’s Office for Civil Rights.  The CPA proposes to codify the Weldon Amendment into permanent law and gives victims of discrimination the opportunity to defend their rights in court. This additional remedy is critical for cases where HHS/OCR fails to enforce, or is slow in enforcing, federal law.

Suggested Comments

I strongly commend the Department for publishing these proposed regulations, and urge their adoption. For over four decades, through enactments such as the Church Amendment, Congress has sought to ensure that health care institutions and medical professionals will not have to choose between abandoning medicine and violating their conscience, particularly with respect to abortion and sterilization. The proposed regulations will implement these longstanding federal laws and help ensure that no one is forced to participate in abortion or abortion coverage.