In the days leading up to the adoption of the latest spending bill in Washington, my social media feeds were full of posts from a variety of pro-life groups addressing one topic: including protection of medical conscience rights in the spending bill. To anyone unfamiliar with the federal budget process, an appropriations bill would sound like an odd place to mention conscience rights. But as we know, all kinds of oddball things work their way into budget deals.

As it happens, the conscience protection act promoted by pro-lifers was not included in the spending bill approved on March 22. I would have shrugged – a pro-life initiative rejected in Washington? so what else is new? – but for a similar disappointment closer to home. A week before the federal spending bill was adopted, a bill to protect the conscience rights of medical professionals was rejected in my state’s legislature by a two-to-one margin.

Lest you think this is a partisan problem, note that the GOP holds majorities in the legislative bodies at issue here.

I was at the hearing for the state-level bill. The thrust of the opposition to conscience legislation boiled down to this: abortion is health care, and those who don’t want to participate in abortions have no business in the medical field.

The argument was couched in terms of denial of access: if a pharmacist doesn’t want to hand out an abortion-inducing drug, that might prevent or delay a woman’s abortion; if some doctor refuses to participate in abortion, he might let a hemorrhaging woman bleed to death. (Nonsense, but some legislators swallowed that whopper whole.)

The supporters of conscience legislation testified to the primacy of conscience, which our own state’s constitution explicitly recognizes as a natural right, not one that needs to be granted. They cited the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They spoke of their religious and ethical beliefs and how they shouldn’t be fired for sticking to them.

“Access” met conscience, and “access” won.

These state and federal votes were hardly the last word. They’re intriguing, though. They indicate to me that hostility and indifference to conscience rights are alive and well, even in more-or-less respectable circles. Fortunately, there are people pushing back.

I kinda liked Cardinal Dolan’s pushback on the federal vote.

The failure of Congress to include the Conscience Protection Act in the 2018 omnibus appropriations bill is deeply disappointing. The CPA is an extraordinarily modest bill that proposes almost no change to existing conscience protection laws on abortion—laws that receive wide public and bi-partisan support. The CPA simply proposes to provide victims of discrimination with the ability to defend their rights in court to help ensure that no one is forced to participate in abortion. Those inside and outside of Congress who worked to defeat the CPA have placed themselves squarely into the category of extremists who insist that all Americans must be forced to participate in the violent act of abortion. We call on Congress not to give up until this critical legislation is enacted.

Ellen Kolb is a writer and activist living in New Hampshire. Read more at ellenkolb.com/blog

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