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House of Representatives Undermines Women’s Health

September 10, 2004

Vote to allow health care institutions to refuse to provide
reproductive health care violates ethical norms

WASHINGTON DC—Women’s rights activists have repeatedly warned that reproductive rights are under attack, and last night the House of Representatives approved a measure that will put women at serious risk.

The US House of Representatives voted last night to approve a federal refusal clause in the FY05 Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Bill that would allow health care providers to deny women care. While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) lobby falsely claims it will protect religious health care providers from participating in abortion, in reality, it will enable any health care provider, not just religious providers, to refuse to participate in or provide information about abortion. It also permits providers to refuse, for any reason, to pay or refer for abortion services.

Although the USCCB claimed that this clause would allow all religious health care providers to be exempt from providing abortions, the fact is that both Catholic and non-Catholic facilities have been protected by the Church Amendment since 1973 and are not required to provide abortions. The bishops argued that a refusal clause was a necessary addition to the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, which restricted the use of tax-dollars for poor women’s abortions. This amendment, also offered by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), actually strips provisions from the original Hyde Amendment that did mandate Medicaid coverage of abortions in cases of rape, incest or where the pregnancy endangers a woman’s life by permitting health care providers to decline services to women enrolled in Medicaid who face those conditions.

“This provision could seriously affect poor women in the most dire circumstances—women who have been raped and women whose lives are in jeopardy because of a high risk pregnancy, women who depend on the federal government for their health care,” said Jon O’Brien, vice president of Catholics for a Free Choice. “It is appalling that the bishops would support an amendment that specifically strikes out at poor women.”

“The political agenda of the US Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Care Association is completely out of touch with the needs and interests of Catholics in the pews,” added O’Brien. “Catholics are deeply concerned about quality health care and Catholics support access to reproductive health care services, including abortion.”

A 2000 poll by Catholics for a Free Choice found that women expect to receive comprehensive care regardless of the religious affiliation of the hospital, and 88 percent believe that if a hospital refuses to provide services, it has an obligation to provide referrals to another hospital where they can get the needed services. “Women overwhelmingly want reproductive services to be provided at their hospital,” continued O’Brien. “Eighty-seven percent of Catholic women believe their hospital should offer medically indicated abortions, 91 percent feel birth control pills should be provided and 78 percent say they believe the hospital should offer morning-after pills to rape victims. It is clear that Catholic health care is falling short, and last night the House abandoned women and their health.”

“The federal refusal clause is not about protecting religious freedom, it is about denying religious freedom to women and doctors who lose the right to provide or receive medical services based on their conscience, as opposed to that of the health facility from which they seek services,” said O’Brien. “The federal refusal clause will allow for any health care provider to discriminate against patients’ health care needs for any reason. Women not only have a right to quality medical care, but they want and expect it. Denying women information about their health options or refusal to provide referrals to patients in need of services is nothing short of an unconscionable intrusion on women’s moral agency.”

“The federal refusal clause discriminates against women,” said O’Brien. “Health care providers have a commitment to those they serve and cannot be allowed to decide not to provide a service or a referral for that service merely because they personally do not like it.”