From its earliest days, faith has inspired followers of Jesus Christ to work for healing, to promote the equal dignity of all people and to care for the vulnerable. Jesus brought healing and underscored the great truth of biblical religion: All people are created in the image of God. Catholics have carried the mission of Christ forward by establishing hospitals and serving in medicine, and by engaging this ministry here in the United States, I believe we have made important contributions to our country.

The faith that inspires us in our healing ministries is the same faith that compels us to protect the unborn. All are created in the image of God, and therefore we ought to seek to serve everyone we encounter, both mothers and children.

Certainly, some people disagree with us on this point. Where we seek the flourishing of both mother and child, others seem to see a kind of competition of rights claims, where only one claim can prevail.

A bill put forward in the U.S. Senate recently takes this latter view. The misnamed Women’s Health Protection Act seeks to impose abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy across the country. But it takes another step. Not content to deny the right to life to the unborn, the authors of the bill would deny liberty to people of faith.

Astonishingly, in the eyes of some senators and the activists pushing this legislation, religious persons and institutions who understand abortion to involve the taking of an innocent human life should be coerced by the government to perform abortions. For the authors of this law, it’s not enough to have access to abortion; they want to conscript religious objectors into providing them.

Most Americans would likely agree with the Catholic teaching that religious freedom involves immunity from coercion “in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” We intuitively grasp that people should not be forced to do things they think are wrong.


That intuitive grasp about coercion may explain why the Religious Freedom Restoration Act received near-unanimous support when it was passed into law in 1993. This law basically ensures that the government cannot impinge on religion without a good reason. When the government does constrict religious practice, it needs to actually show that it has that good reason, and it needs to try to minimize the harm done to religion.

The Women’s Health Protection Act specifically states that it overrides the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, something no bill passed by Congress has ever done.

The Women’s Health Protection Act invalidates both federal and state laws that provide religious freedom protections to health care providers.

And these provisions do not only apply to institutions. This law would abridge conscience protection for individuals. That means that a nurse who believes abortion is wrong can still be forced to participate in one.

This is a clear-cut instance of a gross violation of the right to live out one’s faith. What does religious freedom mean to Americans if people can be forced to violate their faith in such an egregious manner?

Pope Francis has described conscientious objection as “the ethical intimacy of every health professional (which) should never be negotiated, it is the ultimate responsibility of health professionals.”

Over the course of its history, this country has found ways to accommodate faith groups on different issues. Some religious communities, such as Mennonites and Quakers, object to participating in war, and our nation has benefited from their witness to peace. Similarly, our nation should respect the right to religious freedom on the part of those who object to abortion. Such respect is part of our highest ideals, and by attending to their witness, our nation might come to a truer understanding of the gospel of life.

I appreciate that a majority of U.S. senators voted to block such extreme legislation on a bipartisan basis, and I pray that all elected officials will support and strengthen the protections that ensure faith-based charities and individuals can provide compassionate service to all those in need.

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