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H.R. 940 (114th): Health Care Conscience Rights Act

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.

The Health Care Conscience Rights Act is H.R. 940 in the House and S. 1919in the Senate. It was introduced by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN6) and Sen. James Lankford (R-OK).

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.”

Why now?

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.

Last updated Sep 2, 2016. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Feb 12, 2015.


Health Care Conscience Rights Act

Amends title I of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to declare that nothing in that title requires an individual to purchase individual health insurance coverage that includes coverage of an abortion or other item or service to which the individual has a moral or religious objection, or prevent an issuer from offering coverage excluding such item or service to that individual.

Denies that title I requires a health plan sponsor or a health insurance issuer to cover an item or service to which the sponsor or issuer has a moral or religious objection.

Denies also that title I authorizes imposition of a tax, penalty, fee, fine, or other sanction, or imposition of coverage of such an item or service, on health insurance coverage that excludes such an item or service.

Amends the Public Health Service Act to codify the prohibition against any action by the federal government and any state or local government receiving federal financial assistance to subject a health professional, or health care facility, organization, or plan to discrimination on the basis that the entity refuses to participate in abortion-related activities.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to designate the Director of the Office for Civil Rights of HHS to receive and investigate complaints alleging a violation of this abortion discrimination prohibition.

Creates a cause of action for the Attorney General or any person or entity adversely affected to obtain equitable or legal relief for any violation of this abortion discrimination prohibition. Allows commencement of an action and the granting of relief without a prerequisite pursuit of administrative remedies. Allows such an action against a federal or state governmental entity.