Bishops Will Push HHS Mandate Conscience Protections in Congress

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 13, 2012   |   1:46PM   |   Washington, DC

A top legislative staffer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the nation’s Catholic leaders will push again for Congress to approve conscience exemptions for the Obama HHS-Abortion mandate in Obamacare.

The mandate forces religious groups and businesses to pay for birth control and drugs that may cause abortions for their employees and it contains only a narrow exemption that most groups do not qualify for under the law.

In a new interview with the National Catholic Register, Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities and the chief pro-life lobbyist, talked about the next push for the mandate exemption. He believes the upcoming Labor/HHS appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2013 afford pro-life advocates another opportunity to push the Fortenberry-Blunt conscience protections.

“So far, we have pursued remedies to the contraception mandate in all three branches of government, and all those avenues remain open,” he said.

Approving the conscience protections will be easy on the House side with pro-life Republicans controlling the chamber, but Doerflinger says he thinks the Senate is still a possibility since there are almost 50 votes for it.

“The election left things largely as they were: We count the same number of votes in the new Senate as in the old — not in terms of party affiliation, but in terms of pro-life position,” he said. “The only time that a conscience measure for the mandate was considered in the Senate it got 48 votes, with very little time to explain the issues. Getting to 50 or 51 votes in the Senate could happen, especially if you can attach legislation to a must-pass vehicle, where you have leverage to trade back and forth, to get policy riders approved. We are not giving up on that and will continue to pursue this agenda.”

“There is a continuing resolution that keeps the government funded until March. They don’t have to do the appropriations bill until then, but there are rumors that Congress and the White House — to avert the “fiscal cliff” — will have to do a deal on revenue and spending. Some would like the appropriations bill to be part of that [remedy]. Even before the end of this year, we may have a debate on this issue,” he explained. “Right now, the House committee draft of the Labor/HHS appropriations bill has language like that of the Fortenberry-Blunt bill. I believe the House leadership will fight for that in negotiations with the Senate. Where that comes on the priorities list, we can’t say.”

“It is now becoming very clear that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay and that we really need relief. We will be urging Catholics to write to their congressional representatives in support of that provision — Section 537 of the Labor/HHS appropriations bill,” the pro-life lobbyist said. “We see every reason to continue our efforts in both Congress and the courts and to continue to ask the administration to take a more flexible view of the conscience issues involved.”

Asked by NCR if Obama would sign the conscience protections into law, Doerflinger said he might if they were attached to a funding bill or another important piece of legislation.

“Perhaps if the alternative is to veto a bill he favors, like an entire appropriations bill. Then perhaps he would,” he said. “If the courts are continuing to bring injunctions against the mandate, the administration may not want to continue pursing 35 different lawsuits on this and will perhaps back down.”

During the Senate vote, Democrats Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia crossed sides and voted with Republicans to support the amendment. They may be joined by Joe Donnelly, of Indiana. Pro-abortion Republican Olympia Snowe, a Maine senator who recently announced her retirement, was the only GOP lawmaker to oppose the Blunt amendment and she will not be in the next session of Congress. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, a Republican, was absent for the vote but would have voted for the amendment.

In July 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommended several mandatory health services, as called for in President Obama’s health law. This included a recommendation requiring health care plans to provide controversial preventive health services, including birth control, drugs that may cause abortions and emergency contraception. The Blunt Amendment would prevent health care providers and insurers from being forced to violate their principles to offer services they are morally opposed to, and it guarantees that all Americans are not penalized or discriminated against for exercising their rights of conscience.

The text of the Blunt Amendment consists of the language taken from the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (S. 1467, H.R. 1179).  It would amend the Obama health care law (“ObamaCare”) to prevent the imposition of regulatory mandates that violate the religious or moral convictions of those who purchase or provide health insurance.

The National Right to Life Committee calls the amendment “vital” and says the Obama HHS mandate could result in a mandate in the future that forces taxpayer funding of abortions.



“When President Obama’s health care legislation was under consideration in the Senate in 2009, NRLC warned that a provision dealing with “preventive health services” would empower the Secretary of Health and Human Services to mandate coverage of any medical service, including abortion, merely by adding the service to an expandable list,” NRLC says. “Predictably, the Administration issued a decree in August, 2011, covering all FDA-approved birth control methods – a mandate that, unless overturned, will produce an irreconcilable conflict between conscience and the coercive force of government for many employers.  In recent months, the Administration’s “birth-control mandate” has elicited vigorous protests from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, and many other religious leaders, as an attack on religious liberty.”

“But this is not a debate only about the specific parameters of the birth-control mandate.  Exactly the same statutory authority could be used by the Administration — as early as next year — to mandate that all health plans pay for elective abortion on demand,” NRLC added.

“The Blunt Amendment goes to the heart of the problem by amending the ObamaCare law itself, to prevent provisions of the law from being used as a basis for regulatory mandates that violate the religious or moral convictions of those who purchase or provide health insurance,” the pro-life organization said.