The head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has penned an op-ed criticizing a bill to codify abortion access that failed last week, his first public statement on the issue in the two weeks since a leaked draft opinion suggested the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Bishop Robert Deeley wrote that the Women’s Health Protection Act would have removed legal protections for health care providers who refuse to perform abortions because of their religious beliefs. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine made a similar argument when she voted against the bill last week. But Democrats, including Maine Sen. Angus King, have disputed that claim and said the bill would not have forced anyone to perform abortions.

Bishop Robert Deeley, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, leads a prayer during Hands Around the Capitol at the Maine State House in Augusta in January. Participants oppose the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The bill failed in a nearly party-line vote, but the bishop said he was writing about it now “to emphasize the paramount importance of religious liberty.” Congress will likely consider other legislation to enshrine the 50-year-old precedent in federal law. A spokesman from the diocese did not respond to an email earlier this month asking about the draft opinion leaked from the Supreme Court, and the bishop did not address the court’s impending decision in his op-ed.

The bishop argued that the bill would have overridden federal employment protections for providers who refuse to perform abortions for religious reasons, so those people could be forced to go against their beliefs in order to keep their jobs.

“The WHPA invalidates both federal and state laws that provide religious freedom protections to health care providers,” Deeley wrote. “And these provisions do not only apply to institutions. The WHPA would abridge conscience protection for individuals. That means that a nurse who believes abortion is wrong can still be forced to participate in one.”

Supporters and abortion rights advocates disagreed. They said the bill would not undermine the protections that exist in federal and Maine law for health care providers who object to the procedure.

“The bill is drafted to create a protected right for people who want to provide abortion care,” said Nicole Clegg, senior vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund. “It doesn’t mandate the provision for people who do not want to. It’s much like the right to vote where people get to decide whether or not they want to exercise that right and vote.”

All 50 Republicans and one Democrat – Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia – voted against moving forward with the Women’s Health Protection Act. A spokeswoman for Collins highlighted the Reproductive Choice Act, an alternative she introduced in February with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and said she is also working on a separate bill with Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

The bishop did not answer a question about whether he would support other proposals drafted by Collins that would codify abortion rights but also address her concerns about religious objectors.

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