Maine Bishop Deeley: Women’s Health Protection Act restricts religious freedom

From its earliest days, faith has inspired followers of Jesus Christ to work for healing, to promote equal dignity for all, and to care for the vulnerable. Jesus brought healing and underscored the great truth of biblical religion: all people are created in the image of God. Catholics have continued the mission of Christ by establishing hospitals and serving in medicine, and by engaging in this ministry here in the United States, I believe we have made important contributions to our country.

The faith that inspires us in our healing ministries is the same faith that compels us to protect the unborn. All are created in the image of God, and so we should seek to serve everyone we meet, both mothers and children.

Admittedly, some people disagree with us on this point. Where one seeks the nurturing of both mother and child, others seem to see a kind of competition of rights claims, where only one claim can prevail.

A bill introduced recently in the US Senate takes the latter view. The misnamed Women’s Health Protection Act aims to mandate abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy nationwide. But it takes another step. Not content with denying the right to life to the unborn child, the authors of the bill would deny freedom to believers.

Surprisingly, in the eyes of some senators and activists pushing this legislation, people and religious institutions who understand that abortion involves the taking of an innocent human life should be compelled by the government to perform abortions. For the authors of this law, it is not enough to have access to abortion; they want to enlist religious objectors to supply them.

Most Americans would probably agree with Catholic teaching that religious freedom involves immunity from coercion “so that no one shall be compelled to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, that whether in private or in public, alone or in association with others”. , within the limits due. We intuitively understand that people shouldn’t be forced to do things they think are wrong.

This intuitive understanding of coercion may explain why the Religious Freedom Restoration Act received near unanimous support when it was passed in 1993. This law essentially ensures that the government cannot encroach on religion without a good reason. When the government restricts religious practice, it must actually show that it has this good reason, and it must try to minimize the damage done to religion.

The Women’s Health Protection Act specifically states that it trumps the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which no bill passed by Congress has ever done.

The Women’s Health Protection Act invalidates federal and state laws that offer religious freedom protections to health care providers.

And these provisions do not only apply to institutions. This law would restrict the protection of the conscience of individuals. This means that a nurse who believes abortion is wrong can still be forced to participate.

This is a clear example of a flagrant violation of the right to live one’s faith. What does religious freedom mean to Americans if people can be forced to violate their faith in such a flagrant way?

Pope Francis has described conscientious objection as “the ethical privacy of every healthcare professional (which) should never be negotiated, it is the ultimate responsibility of healthcare professionals.”

Throughout its history, this country has found ways to accommodate faith groups on different issues. Some religious communities, such as the Mennonites and Quakers, oppose participation in war, and our nation has benefited from their witness to peace. Likewise, our nation should respect the right to religious freedom on the part of those who oppose abortion. Such reverence is among our highest ideals, and by heeding their witness, our nation could come to a truer understanding of the gospel of life.

I appreciate that a majority of U.S. senators voted to block such extreme legislation on a bipartisan basis, and I pray that all elected officials support and strengthen the protections that ensure faith-based charities and individuals can provide service compassionate to all who need it.


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