For 50 years, the Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association (PCHA) has defended conscience rights for individuals and Catholic health care institutions. Among PCHA’s achievements are its contribution to the passage of the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act and prevention of legislation that would have required all hospitals to administer potentially abortion-causing emergency contraception to sexual assault victims.
In 2002, PCHA and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) prevailed upon the legislature to pass a law to restore the “compelling state interest” standard to actions by the Pennsylvania government that place a burden on religious liberty. For example, employees and patients have the right to a safe and clean medical environment. Health and safety regulations may have a compelling state interest. Although the state is telling the Catholic health care facility what to do, so to speak, the “intrusion” is allowed for the good of all.
On the other hand, there is not a compelling state interest to force Catholics to perform abortions. Some might disagree, but in the views of the Church, abortion is not a critical health care service. In addition, under current law a woman can easily obtain an abortion somewhere other than the Catholic hospital.
Pennsylvania is one of the few states to so clearly define the standard of compelling state interest into law.
In 2007, PCHA and PCC prevented passage of a bill that would have mandated hospitals to provide emergency contraception (EC) to sexual assault victims. EC inhibits or prevents ovulation, fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg. Catholic teaching holds that life begins at conception, so preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb is considered abortion.
Sexual assault is an act of unjust aggression. Catholic hospitals can and do administer EC when tests confirm that conception has not likely occurred. With no conscience exception in this bill, however, Catholic hospitals would have been required to provide treatment in all cases. PCHA and PCC were successful in defending the right of Catholic hospitals to determine for themselves if emergency contraception would be licit.
These victories are worth celebrating, but the fight to defend religious liberty rages on. The battle lines of freedom remain the same – defending the boundaries where the government cannot interfere with religious conscience.
PCHA continues the defense of religious liberty with its advocacy against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that employers (with few exceptions) provide coverage in their employee health care plans for sterilization and contraceptives, including drugs that induce abortion. Advocates can send a message to their elected officials about the HHS mandate by visiting the PCC website, www.pacatholic.org.
In Harrisburg, PCHA is supporting House Bill 383 and Senate Bill 276, the Freedom of Conscience Act, which would assure health care providers, including pharmacists, that they could exercise religious, moral or ethical principles and refuse to participate in certain health care services.
The Church recently marked the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan when the Roman Empire proclaimed tolerance for Christianity. Pope Francis called the occasion “a symbol of the first affirmation of the principle of religious freedom.” He went on to say, however, that today “religious freedom is more often declared than achieved.”
PCHA’s much shorter history reveals the unfortunate truth of the pope’s statement. The battle lines of religious liberty are still active. PCHA, PCC and all of us must remain vigilant in our defense of religious freedom.
A. B. Hill is, communications director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs agency of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. Stay up-to-date with Catholic news and issues at www.pacatholic.org, www.facebook.com/pacatholic, and www.twitter.com/pacatholic.