Dec. 9, 2004 – Californiaâ€™s attorney general announced yesterday that he will file a lawsuit to block a controversial measure passed recently by Congress that would deny states federal funds if they enforce laws to protect womenâ€™s rights to abortions and related care.
The measure, dubbed the "Weldon amendment" after Floridaâ€™s US Representative David Weldon, was tacked on to the multibillion-dollar Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Bill for 2005 and passed Congress with relatively little debate. President George Bush signed the legislation yesterday.
The amendment specifies that no funds made available by the appropriations bill can be provided to any federal agency, or any state or local government, if it "discriminates" against health care providers for refusing to "provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions." In other words, doctors, nurses, clinics, hospitals, insurers or HMOs cannot be forced by state law to provide abortion services or refer a patient to abortion services. If federal, state or local agencies require health care workers or insurers to perform -- or provide referrals or information about -- abortions, they can lose their federal funding.
"This is an unacceptable attack on women's rights and state sovereignty, and a back-door attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade," California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said in a press statement, referring to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that granted women the right to decide whether or not to terminate their own pregnancies. "With this provision, what the federal government says to California is this: If you want back your own taxpayer dollars for important programs that serve all the people of your state, you first have to refuse to protect the constitutional rights of the women who live in your state. That is wrong, it is unlawful, and I will fight to make sure it doesn't happen."
In his statement to the press, Lockyer said that his lawsuit -- likely to be filed within weeks -- would ask the court to void the Weldon amendment and prohibit its enforcement. The complaint will hinge on arguments that Congress overstepped its power in imposing the measure and that its financial penalties violate state sovereignty guaranteed in the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution.
While the judiciary has generally deferred to Congress on similar matters, Lockyer argues that the Weldon amendment goes much further in its opposition of financial penalties than other measures previously considered by the courts. Violation of the amendment is to be punished by the denial of funds that affect labor, education and other unrelated programs.
Womenâ€™s rights groups applauded Lockyerâ€™s announcement. Kathy Kneer, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California said in a press statement that she was proud that California is taking the lead on the protection of womenâ€™s healthcare rights. Planned Parenthood is a national reproductive health care services provider.
"The Weldon Amendment is another example of the Bush Administration's efforts to limit women's access to reproductive services with the ultimate goal of eliminating women's right to choose," she said. "The effect of the Weldon Amendment is to deny women full access to emergency medical care. It also undermines a state's authority to protect women's health and a state's ability to ensure that women have access to a full range of reproductive choices."
Many states already have "conscience" laws that allow medical personnel to refuse to perform or assist in abortions for personal, moral or religious reasons. But the Weldon amendment extends such measures to all 50 states, expands them to include hospitals, clinics, insurers and HMOs, and eliminates the requirement that refusal be based on moral or religious grounds. The measure would not only allow insurance companies to refuse to pay for abortion services for any reason, but its opponents fear it would also allow health care entities to prohibit their employees from disseminating abortion related information or referrals.
Proponents of the amendment maintain that it is necessary in order to protect health care providers from being forced to participate in abortions if they are morally opposed to them and call Lockyerâ€™s threat to involve the courts "undemocratic."
"We applaud President Bushâ€™s recognition that hospitals and other health care providers have a right to choose not to be involved in destroying life," Cathy Cleaver Ruse, of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said in a press statement. "It is outrageous to suggest that Catholic health care providers and others with moral objections should be forced into the practice of abortion."
But in a statement to the press, US House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents California, called the amendment an "unconscionable display of ideology over health care."
She added, "Holding federal funds for health care and other critical services hostage because reproductive health services are offered is an extraordinary and unacceptable attack on women's rights."