Politics trumping conscience in Olympia

  • Written by Richard M. Doerflinger
  • Published in Commentary
Washington state Senate chambers. Photo: Lincolnite, CC BY-SA 3.0* Washington state Senate chambers. Photo: Lincolnite, CC BY-SA 3.0*

Recently Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a “public records” law that seemed to have one purpose: to allow legislators to conceal their decision-making process from the people. He now has another chance to take the high road, showing that public service means more than political expediency.

Richard M. Doerflinger
Richard M. Doerflinger. Photo: CNS

On the narrowest of margins, 50-48, the Washington State House of Representatives has given final approval to SB 6219 that will require every health plan in Washington to cover the full range of elective abortions. This will make our state Legislature one of the first in the nation to make such coverage a matter of coercion rather than choice. It contradicts the policy of the federal “Obamacare” law of 2010, approved and signed into law entirely by Democrats. The state House and Senate rejected amendments to make such coverage permissive rather than mandatory (the Obama policy on abortion) — or even to allow an exemption for “religious or sectarian” organizations (the Obama policy, later broadened by the U.S. Supreme Court, on the less divisive issue of contraception).

This is not about access to abortion for those who seek it. Washington state has taken steps to ensure that no woman who wants abortion or abortion coverage faces serious barriers. The state Medicaid program offers free abortions to all pregnant women with incomes up to about twice the federal poverty level. The vast majority of health plans cover abortion — in part because, in the absence of a moral or religious objection, economic incentives argue for covering a procedure that prevents a live birth.

The exceptions are plans offered by insurers who have moral and religious convictions, or plans made available at the request of purchasers with such convictions.

So the reason for the new law seems to be that the majority in the Legislature, aware that some fellow citizens disagree with them on the issue, do not want to allow them to live accordingly. That is what troubles me as a Democrat, and should trouble anyone who still thinks such issues are about “choice.”

Abortion is among the issues that seriously divide us, with Americans about evenly split each year between those who identify as “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Somehow, nevertheless, we need to learn to live together. It is one thing to hold that the being in the womb is not a person with rights, and quite another thing to hold that people who disagree are not persons with rights.

Our traditions on conscience and religious freedom go back to our nation’s founding. The founders believed that the individual conscience, and the freedom of religious minorities to follow their deepest convictions, tap into the human spirit at a level that no law or political agenda should interfere with. Thus the free exercise of religion was enshrined among our “first freedoms” in the U.S. Constitution, and has been an area for strong bipartisan consensus. We forget at our peril that the strongest federal law on this, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was sponsored by liberal Democrats like Chuck Schumer and enthusiastically signed into law by Bill Clinton.

In an increasingly partisan age, it is tempting to see such values as political footballs like any other. But when the political pendulum swings the other way, as it always eventually does, one has lost any argument that “freedom of choice” should override the imposition of the opposite view by one’s opponents. The mutual respect that helps us, despite serious disagreements, to live together in one society, is frayed enough, and does not need to be aggravated further. Gov. Inslee should send back this bill and urge the Legislature to reconsider.

Richard M. Doerflinger is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in La Conner. He retired in 2016 after 36 years with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

*CC BY-SA 3.0