An Archdiocese of Washington official warned D.C. lawmakers Dec. 19 that a proposed bill to deregulate abortion in the District of Columbia “will actually make abortions – and maternal health care in general – more dangerous for women, girls, and their children.”

The proposal “does nothing to strengthen reproductive health,” said Mary Forr, manager of Catholic policy and advocacy for the Archdiocese of Washington. “The bill would remove all remaining protections, which would include baseline health and facility safety requirements, thereby jeopardizing the health and well-being of women and girls.”

Forr addressed the D.C. Council’s Committee on Government Relations, which is considering “The Strengthening Reproductive Health Protections Amendment Act of 2019.”

“Though people may disagree on abortion, we all should be able to agree on the need to protect the life and health of women and girls,” Forr said. “There can be no reproductive justice if women and girls receiving abortions do not have the same protection of health standards as people receiving other forms of medical care do.”

The proposed measure would amend the District’s Human Rights Act of 1977 and would, among other things, “prohibit the District government from interfering with reproductive health decisions and from imposing a punishment or penalty … for a self-managed abortion, miscarriage or adverse pregnancy outcomes.”

Forr warned about the bill's possible impact, saying “failure to regulate reproductive health care does not make it safer for women and girls, but instead, opens the door for exploitation.” 

She pointed out that “administration of medication, sanitary conditions, functioning sewage systems, reporting of suspected abuse of children or human trafficking, and medical staffing are municipal regulations. This bill would eliminate and effectively outlaw these types of regulations and restrictions, which safeguard women’s health.”

Noting that “abortion is readily available in the District without limitation” and that the city’s abortion laws are among “the least restrictive in the nation,” Forr said the proposal before D.C. Council would make “not only terminating (a pregnancy), but maternal health care in general – less safe for women, girls, and their children.” 

She added that the bill’s language “is overly broad, vague, and ambiguous.”

Beyond its negative impact on women’s health, the bill would also prohibit “a non-healthcare providing religious employer… from acting in accordance with the mission of their organization in their employment policies,” Forr said.

She said provisions of the proposed measure “could be construed to dictate employment policies that are contrary to the teachings or mission of employers.”

“If any employee publicly announces their own reproductive health decision that is not consistent with the mission of the organization, the organization must have the freedom to act so that all employees are working toward the mission,” Forr said. “This is particularly problematic in instances where the employee in question interacts with children entrusted by their parents to the organization for the purpose of the children being educated in accordance with the teachings of the organization.”

She added that the bill’s broad definition of health care providers and professionals not only include physicians, nurses, aides, clinic employees, counselors, and social workers, but also “any other individual involved in providing health care in any manner.” 

“These definitions could be construed so broadly as to regulate employees of Catholic schools, Catholic Charities, and other Church ministries including pregnancy centers,” Forr said. “The bill requires a religious employer, not typically classified as a healthcare provider, to hire and retain individuals who openly contradict its religious beliefs.”

Criticizing the measure because it “grants special treatment to abortion providers, but fails to protect the conscience rights of those who decline to participate in abortion,” Forr said it “appears to single out pro-life and religious health-care providers … for disparate treatment, whether pro-life crisis pregnancy centers offering abortion alternatives, health clinics operated by religious institutions, or even religious elementary schools and high schools.”

The bill “would potentially require a Catholic school with a nurse on staff to continue to employ someone who performed abortions on the side, thereby forcing the school to accept practices it teaches against,” Forr said.

The Archdiocese of Washington official added, “Instead of this bill, the more just answer to what women and girls really need are real choices that protect their full and equal participation in social, political and economic life... Let's re-examine our policies and attitudes in workplaces and institutes of learning to support those facing an unplanned pregnancy and address basic needs such as housing, child care, education, health care, flex time, transportation, telecommuting solutions and maternity benefits.”