On the cusp of 2016, the president of the U.S. Bishops Conference is calling for greater protection of pro-life professionals and organizations in the year ahead. 

Archbishop Kurtz, who heads the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., lamented the absence of the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA) in Congress’ 2016 omnibus funding bill. He warned that the failure to include robust conscience protections against participation in abortion is a cause for grave concern.

“The principle at stake is whether people of faith and others who oppose abortion and abortion coverage should be compelled to participate in them,” the archbishop said Dec. 23. “We will continue to reach out to the White House and Congressional leaders untiringly until proper protections are guaranteed.”

“Many Catholic and other institutions, including those that provide health care and other human services to the poor and vulnerable, have joined in our support of ANDA,” the archbishop continued. “Without ANDA, these caring organizations face legal threats to their very existence, as they lack clear and enforceable protection for their freedom to serve the needy in accord with their deepest moral convictions on respect for human life.” 

The Abortion Non-Discrimination Act had been included in the House of Representatives’ draft Labor / Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bills since 2013, but was never enacted. Its provisions would strengthen protections provided by the Weldon Amendment and the Church Amendments.

The Weldon Amendment has been included in HHS appropriations bills since 2005. It bars U.S. states that accept federal funds from discriminating against institutions and health care entities that do not provide coverage of abortion or refer for abortions. The Church Amendments, first passed in the 1970s, bar individuals and entities from being required to violate their religious beliefs or moral convictions against abortion as part of a government program.

In an Oct. 25 primer, the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities analyzed the proposed Abortion Non-Discrimination Act.

According to the primer, the act would protect medical professionals from being forced to take part in abortions despite their moral and religious objections. Some current protections for these persons lack a “right of action” that would allow victims to take their cause to court. Existing provisions threaten a total loss of federal funds to those who violate the law, but there are concerns this penalty is so massive it will never be applied in practice. 

The primer points to several cases of coercion. Cathy DeCarlo, a nurse at a New York hospital, who was forced by her superiors to dismember a 22-week-old unborn child in 2009. Vanderbilt University has told nurses that they must assist in abortions despite their objections. In California in 2014, the state’s department of managed health care told Catholic and other organizations they must include unlimited elective abortion coverage in employee health plans.

Congress approved the latest federal spending package on Dec. 18. Congress also failed to limit funds for the abortion provider Planned Parenthood, which was the renewed subject of controversy after investigative journalists charged that it violated laws in alleged sales of fetal remains.

Archbishop Kurtz said that the omnibus bill addressed other critical issues. However, he said ANDA represents “modest reform” that would have made federal conscience laws on abortion “workable and enforceable.”

The act has drawn opposition from pro-abortion rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.

The archbishop blamed “partisan polarization” for the exclusion of the provisions.

“I am deeply concerned that a foundational principle that has received long-standing, bipartisan support in the past has suddenly become partisan. No one should be forced by the government to actively participate in what they believe to be the taking of an innocent life,” he said.

Archbishop Kurtz voiced gratitude for ANDA supporters, saying they showed commitment to maintaining a consensus in favor of conscience protection. He strongly urged opponents of the provisions to reconsider, saying they opposed even “modest enforcement of a venerable principle that is rooted in the constitution and has long enjoyed broad, bipartisan support.”