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It was hard to believe it when it happened. Especially since it occurred in Alaska, a bastion of freedom where perhaps more than anywhere else "freedom" is another word for "American." And certainly another word for "Alaskan"!

But in 1997, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a small community hospital in Palmer, Alaska, was required to perform late-term abortions, overruling the hospital’s board of directors which had voted to bar abortions. The hospital, located in a neat farming town in sight of the snow-capped Chugach Mountains, was not religious and thus, the court ruled, could not invoke freedom of conscience.

But now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other pro-life groups have won a strategic battle with the November 20, 2004, Congressional vote to approve a $388 billion spending bill that includes a rider protecting the right of conscience.

Passage of the Hyde-Weldon Amendment is a major pushback against a well-organized abortion rights campaign to force abortion coverage or abortions on all health care entities as a woman’s "right" which supercedes any moral objections, Catholic officials said.

"Under this campaign, they call it a right of access. What they say is if a health care provider does not provide abortion, they are denying access," said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, spokeswoman, the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"There are 1.3 million abortions that happen every year by willing abortion providers. We are not suffering from a shortage of abortions in this country," Ruse said.

In addition to the Valley Hospital case, there are a number of laws and administrative rules barring institutions and people from opposing abortion. In California all hospital sales are subject to approval by the attorney general and any sale must not restrict the use of the property, effectively stopping any abortion limits.

In New Mexico, the state attorney general and Gov. Bill Richardson in May blocked the lease agreement of a Las Cruces community hospital, Memorial Medical Center, until an anti-abortion clause was removed—even though both the hospital and Province Health Care oppose elective abortion.
In New Jersey, there was a failed effort to force a Catholic hospital to build an abortion clinic on its grounds which was only turned aside because the judge ruled there was enough access to abortion in the area, a bishops’ policy analyst said.

The Hyde-Weldon Conscience Protection Amendment to the Health and Human Services section of the appropriations bill says state and local governments that receive federal funds may not discriminate against health care providers and companies that refuse to perform abortions, pay for abortions, provide coverage for abortions or make abortion referrals. The bill goes to President George W. Bush for his signature.
The amendment protects doctors and other health care professionals, hospitals, HMOs, and health insurance plans, among others, the National Right to Life Committee said.

University of San Francisco Professor Raymond Dennehy predicts the vote—even before the new Congress is sworn in—is a sign of better days to come.

"I think we have representatives now who are going to be standing up for the rights of the unborn and for the doctrinal integrity of our religious institutions," said Denney, author of Anti-Abortionist at Large: How to Argue Intelligently about Abortion and Live to Tell About It (Ignatius Press).

The appropriations bill rider takes the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act and attaches it to the spending bill, which means it will be up for review each year with the spending bill, similar to the Hyde Amendment which bars Medicaid abortions.

Pro-abortion groups decried the measure. The NARAL Pro-Choice America termed the amendment "a major new restriction." Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt called it discriminatory and said it infringed on state and local government rights. "It allows any health care provider or institution, religious or otherwise, to refuse to provide a much-needed reproductive health care service," Feldt said.

More than forty states have passed conscience clauses at the same time Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL, Catholics for a Free Choice and the Alan Guttmacher Institute are working for "right of access." The ACLU sponsors a Reproductive Freedom Project. It includes a report and kit aimed at requiring all hospitals, including Catholic hospitals, to provide abortion. NARAL has the Abortion Access Project.

"They don’t recognize the existence of a valid conscience in anyone who disagrees with them," said Richard Doerflinger, director of the bishops’ national prolife office. "It’s amazing they continue to call themselves pro-choice."

Related links:

• USCCB's "Abortion Non-Discrimination/Conscience Rights" page

• Anti-Abortionist at Large: How to Argue Intelligently about Abortion and Live to Tell About It by Raymond Dennehy

Three Approaches to Abortion by Peter Kreeft

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight.com.

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