Unconscionable: Threats to Religious Freedom and Rights of Conscience in the Abortion Debate

Tim Bradley  

To read this paper in full, see Unconscionable: Threats to Religious Freedom and Rights of Conscience in the Abortion Debate.


Executive Summary


Those watching the nation’s capital earlier this year witnessed three important events bearing on religious freedom and rights of conscience in the abortion debate.


In a June 21, 2016, letter, the Obama administration made it clear that it would not take action against the California Department of Managed Health Care’s policy requiring all health plans in the state to cover elective abortions.[1] The Weldon Amendment prevents federal agencies and state and local governments receiving funds from the Department of Health and Human Services from discriminating against health care entities opposed to abortion,[2] but the Obama administration will not seek to apply the law in this case.[3]


One week later, on June 28, 2016, the Supreme Court denied review in the case Stormans v. Wiesman, a dispute regarding the ability of Washington pharmacists with conscientious objections to abortion-inducing drugs to decline to stock such products at their stores.[4]



Then, on July 13, 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Conscience Protection Act by a vote of 245-182.[5] The legislation would prevent government from discriminating against health-care providers who object to participating in the practice of abortion.[6]


These events highlight continuing developments in the abortion debate. While society continues to debate whether and when abortion should be permitted, a second question concerns whether to force pro-life individuals and institutions to participate in or facilitate abortions.


This paper presents a survey of challenges reflecting this transition “from culture wars to conscience wars.”[7] At risk are not only the religious freedom and rights of conscience of pro-life individuals and institutions, but also the goods that a robust understanding and protection of religious liberty and conscience rights provide for society as a whole.


Tim Bradley is a research associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

[1] Richard M. Doerflinger, A Pledge Betrayed: The Obama Administration Nullifies Conscience Rights, Public Discourse (July 6, 2016), http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2016/07/17295/.

[2] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-113, Div. H. Sec. 507(d) (Dec. 18, 2015).

[3] Doerflinger, A Pledge Betrayed: The Obama Administration Nullifies Conscience Rights.

[4] Stormans v. Wiesman, No. 15-862, slip. op. (U.S. June 28, 2016) (Alito, J., dissenting), https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-862_2c8f.pdf.

[5] House Votes 245-182 for Conscience Protection Act, CNSNews.com (July 13, 2016), http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/cnsnewscom-staff/house-votes-245-182-conscience-protection-act.

[6] Conscience Protection Act of 2016, H.R. 4828, 114th Cong. (2016).

[7] Thomas M. Messner, From Culture Wars to Conscience Wars: Emerging Threats to Conscience, Heritage Foundation (April 13, 2011), http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/04/from-culture-wars-to-conscience-wars-emerging-threats-to-conscience.


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