President Obama has a masterful ability to convince people he is their friend even while he attacks them.
This talent was on display last Thursday July 2, when the President spoke to members of the Catholic press about conscience rights for pro-life doctors.
Obama seems to be persuading even pro-life Catholics that he supports "robust" conscience rights. The theologically conservative National Catholic Register said it was "most noteworthy" that the President "dispell[ed] … the expectation of the worst regarding conscience clauses."
Yet one of Obama's first actions was to repeal basic rules protecting conscience. Obama dismissed that action as an unfortunate misunderstanding, causing people to think "my position may appear unclear."
What really happened with the repealed conscience rule shows that Obama's position against conscience is crystal clear.
In the wake of Roe v. Wade, Congress began passing statutes protecting doctors from being forced to participate in abortion. Pro-choice legislators like Obama's Illinois predecessor Senator Adlai Stevenson III agreed that even if abortion is legal, religious freedom requires that doctors never be compelled to participate.
The statutes are straightforward: no recipient of certain federal funds may discriminate against a health provider for refusing to participate in abortion. The statutes also explicitly protect activities such as sterilization, and in some cases they protect any religious belief (see 42 U.S.C. § 300a-7(c)).
But these statutes were rarely enforced. In recent years the abortion industry solidified abortion as a right but has faced fewer providers. So it began active persecution of pro-life doctors.
In 2007 the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists declared that Ob/Gyns must perform abortions or practice near abortionists, and must refer women to them. Obama's core constituency on this issue is insistent: "Qualms about abortion, sterilization, and birth control? Do not practice women's health."
So in 2008 President Bush passed a basic regulation empowering the Department of Health and Human Services to actually enforce existing conscience statutes. The regulation, 45 C.F.R. Part 88, simply says that if an entity receives specific federal funds, it must promise to obey the conscience-protection law that applies.
The abortion industry vigorously opposed the rule as hasty regulation that exceeds its underlying statutes and restricts access to contraception.
President Obama bought into this campaign. He issued a regulation to repeal Bush's rules completely, and he continues to use the empty rhetoric against Bush's rule.
But this background sheds light on Obama's comments to the Catholic press.
"There have been some who keep on anticipating the worst from us, and it's not based on anything I've said or done." The worst is based only on what Obama has done. He is repealing Bush's conscience rules entirely -- he has proposed no alternate.
Obama's repeal can only signal opposition to conscience protection itself. Obama endorses his side's "concerns about how broad [Bush's rules] might be." Specifically, abortion advocates complained that Bush's rule could apply to "contraception, sperm donations and end-of-life care" -- which is another way of saying that doctors should be forced to commit assisted suicide. But some statutes focus on abortion, while others offer broader protection, and Bush's rules did nothing but implement the statutes as written. The only possible basis for Obama to revoke Bush's rule is that he disagrees with the underlying laws.
President Obama claims that someday he will come out with new conscience rules, always signaling that they "may not meet the criteria of every possible critic." Because the Bush implementing regulations merely impose statutory language, President Obama's rules must necessarily be less protective than the statutes.
What can this mean in practice? Abortion advocates have already signaled what they consider to be "sensible" conscience rights. Maybe Obama will allow illegal compulsion if an abortion is medically indicated, which abortionists say means all abortions. Maybe HHS will look the other way if objecting makes "access" inconvenient as Planned Parenthood defines it. Certainly where the statutes apply to contraceptive acts like sterilization, or to assisted suicide, Obama's rules will allow illegal compulsion as a "compromise." And where Bush's HHS might actually revoke funding for a violation, Obama's rules will likely be "educational."
The irony of Obama's repeal of conscience rights is that liberal Catholics champion Obama as a promoter of "common ground." But refraining from compulsion against your opponents is the absolute bare minimum of common ground, and Americans endorse this common ground in the statutes and in recent polls.
Since Obama and his supporters define the status quo, he can impose his own view and just call it common ground. Political power may enable Obama to succeed against conscience laws. But only the smoothest powers of persuasion will let him do it while his victims praise him for his moderation.
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