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Will President Obama Continue to Support Conscience Rights?

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By an executive order in 2010, President Obama assured the nation that the new health reform law, known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, would maintain conscience protections. Now the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could be heading in the opposite direction. Will the President assert himself to safeguard conscience protections now?

HHS will soon list the "preventive services" for women that must be included in private insurance plans. At HHS's request, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has presented a list of mandated services, which includes: provision of drugs approved by the FDA for use as contraceptives, some of which also cause abortion; sterilization; and counseling to encourage people to use such medicines and procedures.

This manipulation of the health care reform law is troubling. As HHS and IOM outline their plan, there is no mention of providing a conscience exemption for institutions and persons who object to paying for procedures that violate their beliefs.

Given the U.S. Constitution's declared right of religious liberty, should the government be able to force anyone, including a Catholic diocese or Catholic school or Catholic Charities agency, to foot the bill for surgical sterilizations for their employees? Should the federal government force such organizations to pay for contraceptives that are marketed to prevent pregnancy but instead can abort tiny children in their earliest stage of development? Should they have to pay for counseling that violates their beliefs?

Abortion lobby forces such as Planned Parenthood, which will make a bundle if this wish list of government mandates to buy their services is accepted, seem to have had undue influence on IOM. Several of the authors of the IOM report have served on the boards of state Planned Parenthood organizations. One IOM committee member, Anthony Lo Sasso, professor and senior research scientist at the University of Illinois at the Chicago School of Public Health, dissented from the report. His reason for objecting, he said, was that "the process tended to result in a mix of objective and subjective determinations filtered through a lens of advocacy."

HHS and IOM may feel indebted to their well-heeled Planned Parenthood friends. But that is no reason for President Obama to lose the good will he gained when he assured the nation of his support for rights of conscience. It certainly is no reason to turn the U.S. Constitution inside out so that religious liberty takes second place to an irreligious lobby. The president needs to get involved now. He might look for inspiration from the brilliant lawyer Thomas More.

Thomas More was Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor. More was beheaded in 1535 when, as a matter of conscience, he refused to sign on to the king's decree making himself head of the church in England. This was Henry's effort to sanction his divorce of Catherine of Aragon for not producing a male heir that lived beyond infancy. (We can leave to a feminist discussion the unfairness of the situation given that the sex of a child is determined by the father, not the mother.) More sacrificed his life for principle and integrity, a sacrifice heralded by other great thinkers after him. "I die the king's good servant," said More at his execution, "but God's first."

One great thinker, G.K. Chesterton, in 1929 warned of those who would lose sight of the importance of personal integrity and predicted what would happen 100 years later. Said Chesterton: "Sir Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death ... but he is not quite so important as he will be in a hundred years time." Society moves fast. More's message may be more important in 2029, as Chesterton predicted, but it's especially vital in 2011. The Administration might want to recall that Henry VIII's role in the affair is not looked upon kindly by history.

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