Let your conscience be your guide

Our political life has become such a war of words that many may not notice that the Trump administration has done something very good and long overdue -- and is being condemned for it.

The very good thing is a regulation to implement numerous federal laws on conscience rights in health care, chiefly on conscientious objection to abortion.

One law, called the Church amendment (after sponsor Sen. Frank Church of Idaho), has been in effect since 1973. Another, the Weldon amendment (after sponsor Rep. Dave Weldon of Florida), has been signed into law as part of the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services by every president of both parties since 2004.

Yet no regulation has been in place to clarify key terms in the laws or ensure effective enforcement.

President George W. Bush had proposed such a regulation. But that was reversed by President Obama, who left all matters of interpretation and enforcement to the HHS Office for Civil Rights. That office then proceeded to distort the laws' meaning so they would seldom do much good.

For example, the Weldon amendment clearly forbids state governments receiving federal funds to force private health plans to provide abortion coverage. But when California issued just such a coercive mandate, the Obama administration found no violation, saying that no insurance company had claimed a moral or religious objection to such coverage.

In fact, the complaint had been brought by Catholic and other religious organizations being forced to sponsor and purchase such coverage for their employees. And the protections of the Weldon amendment are not limited to insurance companies or to cases where the objection is moral or religious in nature.

But the message went out that nobody needs to worry much about these federal laws being enforced. And more states, including my home state of Washington, were emboldened to enact similar abortion mandates.

What this administration has finally done is to take the long-standing conscience laws seriously, defining key terms and establishing an effective complaint and enforcement process. This is what our government's "executive" branch is supposed to do: faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress.

Yet at least 20 states have filed suit against the regulation. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says the rule "smacks of a century-old, bigoted mindset"; Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser says it "threatens to cause incredible mischief"; and New York Attorney General Letitia James calls it "a gross misinterpretation of religious freedom" (forgetting that federal law protects objections to abortion that are not religious).

Ironies abound here. California once sued (unsuccessfully) against the Weldon amendment, saying it would do horrible things. Now it says the new regulation will do those things because it goes beyond Weldon. (One is tempted to ask: Are you lying now, or were you lying then?)

Pro-abortion groups had sued against Weldon saying it was unconstitutionally vague; now the problem seems to be that the regulation makes the law too clear.

Opponents also say the regulation allows invidious discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans and conflicts with state laws on measles vaccination, contraception, treatment of ectopic pregnancy and removal of feeding tubes. But like the long-standing laws it enforces, it does none of these things.

The real central issue is this: to abortion supporters, is the killing of unborn children a matter of "free choice" as they once claimed? Or is it now an essential public good that all must be coerced into providing, under threat of being driven out of the health care system by their government?

We now know the disturbing answer that some government officials give to this question.

- Richard Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.