Liberal elites are once again using health-care policy to advance one of their agenda items, this time on the abortion front.

The American Civil Liberties Union has launched an effort to force religious hospitals to provide abortions. The organization is asking the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services - which controls nearly $800 billion in President Obama's latest budget - to force hospitals to provide abortions or lose federal funding.

The views of the centers' administrator, Dr. Donald Berwick, are so controversial that Obama had to appoint him while Congress was in recess. Now he is overseeing the writing of countless new health-care regulations, and the ACLU can't let an opportunity like that slip by.

Using a handful of mostly anonymous anecdotes about pregnant women who were denied abortions at religiously affiliated hospitals, the group is demanding that Berwick's agency rewrite the rules of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act to force care providers to perform abortions.

The ACLU's argument stands on flimsy legal ground, according to attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has vowed to defend any hospital that comes under attack. First of all, the law in question clearly requires hospitals to safeguard "the health or safety of the woman or the unborn child." So it's no wonder that no court has declared that it requires religious hospitals to violate their conscience.

Congress passed the 1986 law simply to keep hospitals from refusing service to poor patients. That's not an issue here, because even the ACLU doesn't claim that religious hospitals provide abortions only to the rich.

Of course, the ACLU's lawyers will have an easier time making their case if, as they are asking, Berwick slips in some new regulations that they can cite in arguments before activist judges. If the organization succeeds, it will score two victories: a new path to abortions, and a massive blow to the rights of religious Americans.

That won't bother the ACLU's friends in the Obama administration. In its early days, the administration began to throw out federal regulations that protect the consciences of health-care workers. Soon after, it began pressuring a religious school, Belmont Abbey College, to provide employees with insurance coverage that violates the school's conscientious beliefs.

This abuse of conscience betrays American principles that go back at least to the country's founding, when George Washington respected the pacifist consciences of Quakers. Similarly, since Roe v. Wade and under both political parties, Congress has passed laws that respect the consciences of health-care workers.

In 1973, just months after Roe was decided, Congress passed the Church Amendment, declaring that health-care institutions cannot be required to perform abortions to keep their federal funding. The so-called Weldon Amendment, which has been included in appropriations bills since 2005, says any agency that tries to discriminate against hospitals that don't provide abortions will lose its own federal funds. These laws make a mockery of the ACLU's legal claims.

Apart from the dubious legal notions involved, the ACLU is contemplating an action that could eliminate at least 15 percent of the nation's hospital beds - the proportion provided by Catholic hospitals alone. It's threatening not only to trample the consciences of religious health-care workers and institutions, but to hurt every American through the loss of hospitals, doctors, and nurses who can no longer carry out their ministry of healing.

Rick Santorum is a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. He can be reached at rsantorum@eppc.org.