In 2005, Maryland attempted to require every hospital in the state to provide abortion services. In response, Congress required that no federal funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that year could be used towards a state government, local government, or federal agency/program that was required to “provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.” A similar situation unfolded in California this summer.
Congress’s requirement came to be known as the Weldon Amendment, after former Rep. David Weldon (R-FL15) who originally introduced the language. Under both Democratic and Republican leadership, Congress passed this amendment every single year since. Now a large group in Congress — mostly Republicans — wants to codify the annually-passed amendment so that it becomes settled law once and for all.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the bill is a necessary step to protect religious freedom, defending the rights of those who believe they would otherwise be committing murder by engaging in the practice of abortion.
“Religious freedom is a bedrock value of our society but, on President Obama’s watch, this time-honored principle is under assault. That is why our bill offers full exemption from the HHS mandate and provides needed legal protections for healthcare entities who refuse to partake in the barbaric practice of abortion,”said House lead sponsor Rep. Black in a press release. “As a nurse for more than 40 years, I am proud to introduce this legislation that will safeguard the conscience rights of every American and ensure that more unborn lives can be saved in the process.”
“This is a seminal moment for those who support religious liberty and the rights of conscience for all individuals. Congress needs to move legislation to protect the rights of those who, for reasons of personal preference or religious conviction, choose not to get involved with providing abortions,”Weldon wrote in a Politico op-ed. “It’s time to codify my amendment and ensure that all health care providers have a right to action should any state or government insist they participate in the practice of abortion in any way.”
What opponents say
Opponents argue that the amendment endangers women’s health and erodes women’s autonomy.
“The Federal Refusal Clause gives health-care corporations license to interfere with a doctor’s ability to provide comprehensive health information to patients, thus undermining the doctor-patient relationship; Jeopardizes women’s lives; [and] restricts low-income women’s access to necessary reproductive-health care,” says NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“[It] imposes barriers to abortion care, especially for low-income women and women of color; Impinges on states’ ability to protect women’s health; [and] costs states billions of dollars through the loss of all health, education, and labor-related funds if they violate the misguided law.”
Attention has been particularly drawn to the issue this summer over a fight in California. The state had required all its health insurance plans to include abortion coverage, prompting complaints that the state should forfeit their right to any federal funds. But in June, the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services rejected that claim.
“There is no healthcare entity protected under the [right of conscience] statute that has asserted religious or moral objections to abortion and therefore there is no covered entity that has been subject to discrimination within the meaning of the Weldon Amendment,” said Jocelyn Samuels, director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS.
Weldon, who crafted the amendment back in 2005, disagrees. (It does not appear that Obama himself has personally weighed in on the issue.)
Odds of passage
The House bill has 160 cosponsors, 158 Republicans and two Democrats: Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL3) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN7). It has not yet received a vote in either the House Ways and Means Committee or the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Senate bill has 25 cosponsors, all Republican. It has yet to receive a vote in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
A prior version of the bill in the previous Congress didn’t receive a vote either, and that was with an even larger 195 cosponsors.