Bush Enacts New Rules Protecting Conscience Rights

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Writer

With only a month left in office, the Bush administration has issued new rules designed to reinforce existing protections for doctors and other health care workers who refuse to participate in medical practices that violate their religious or moral convictions.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” said Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt said. “Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a health care degree.”

The new rules, which were issued on Dec. 18, are meant to increase awareness of, and compliance with, three separate laws protecting federally funded health care providers’ right of conscience.

The first statute, known as the Church Amendment, has been in effect since shortly after the passage of Roe v. Wade and was adopted by Congress to make it clear that no one was required to perform an abortion. Later laws, such as the Weldon Amendment, prohibit federal, state or local agencies that receive federal money from discriminating against individuals or institutions such as Catholic or other faith-based healthcare providers because they refused to participate in  praocedures or research projects that violate their religious beliefs.

Despite the existence of these laws, “many in the health care industry, and members of the general public, are unaware of these provider conscience rights,” writes Leavitt.

As an example, he cited a recent opinion put forth several months ago by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that disregarded these laws when it attempted to force physicians to either violate their conscience by referring patients for abortions (or taking other objectionable actions) or risk losing their board certification.

“This case and others illustrate the need for the proposed rule to increase awareness of, and compliance with, the three statutes protecting provider conscience rights.”

Critics of the rules fear the protections are so broad they could limit a patient’s right to get care and accurate information, such as being denied birth control or AIDS medication by a pharmacist.

“This gives an open invitation to any doctor, nurse, receptionist, insurance plan or even hospital to refuse to provide information about birth control on the grounds that they believe contraception amounts to abortion,” lawyers for the National Women’s Law Center told the Baltimore Sun.

They also pointed to the last-minute nature of the change. “We are shocked that the Bush administration chose to finalize its midnight regulation and to take this parting shot at women’s health and ignore patients’ rights to receive critical health care services and information they deserve,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

However, few situations such as these have arisen over the last 30 years and, as Leavitt points out in his example, it has become far more likely that health care providers are discriminated against for not cooperating with demands to perform abortions or other research that violates their religious beliefs.

“This is a huge victory for religious freedom and the First Amendment,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Center. “Protecting the right of all health care providers to make professional judgments based on moral convictions and ethical standards is foundational to federal law. These regulations will implement conscience protections that have been embodied in U.S. statutes for over three decades. This is also a victory for the right of patients to choose doctors who decline to engage in morally objectionable practices.”

A spokesman for the Obama transition team told the Baltimore Sun that they “will review all 11th-hour regulations and will address them once he is president.”

President-elect Obama, the most strident pro-abortion president in the nation’s history, could elect to begin the process of adopting a revised rule, but that could take months.

Congress may also be able to adopt a resolution that rejects the rules and two Democratic representatives, Louise Slaughter of New York and Diane DeGette of Colorado are planning to lead an effort to revoke the rule.

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