WASHINGTON (BP)–Pro-life leaders have denounced the Obama administration’s decision to invalidate nearly all of the conscience protections for health-care providers established barely two years ago.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a new regulation that rescinded safeguards for workers and entities who object on moral or religious grounds to providing, for instance, abortion-causing drugs or birth control, although it maintained long-standing, congressional safeguards for those who object to participating directly in the performance of abortions and sterilizations.
The result of the HHS revocation of a rule issued by the Bush administration in December 2008 is to empower federally funded state and local governments, hospitals and health plans to refuse to permit doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other workers to opt out of procedures and prescriptions that violate their convictions.
Leaders in the pro-life and evangelical communities responded with fervent opposition.
Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, said the rights of health-care professionals should not “be held hostage to political interests.”
“The protection of the basic civil right to provide care without participating in life-destructive activities must not be dependent on the whims of an Administration that has made expanding abortion central to its mission,” she said in a written statement.
Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, said the action was “a blow both to medicine and the right to practice one’s deeply-held convictions.”
R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., saw in the decision evidence for more widespread threats to Christian convictions.
“Just imagine how our nation’s founders would consider such a tyrannical trampling of individual conscience by the power of the state,” Mohler wrote on his blog Feb. 18. “From a Christian perspective, this should serve as a clear alarm for those who suggest that it is paranoid to believe that the state will use similar force to require other acts against conscience. The logic is right here for all to see, and only the willfully blind can deny what this new policy means.”
One of the concerns expressed by foes of the new rule is the possibility of medical workers leaving their profession in order to avoid violating their consciences.
“Losing conscientious healthcare professionals and faith-based institutions to discrimination and job loss especially imperils the poor and patients in medically underserved areas,” said J. Scott Ries, a Christian Medical Association vice president, in a written statement. “We are already facing critical shortages of primary care physicians, and the Obama administration’s decision now threatens to make the situation far worse for patients across the country who depend on faith-based health care.”
The head of a leading abortion-rights organization praised the new rule. It “reaffirms the principles of protecting the doctor-patient relationship by repealing the most onerous and intrusive parts” of the previous regulation, said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-choice America.
The new HHS regulation was not a surprise. The administration indicated its intention to revoke the Bush-era rule in full or in part in March 2009, less than two months after President Obama took office. A 30-day comment period resulted in more than 300,000 responses, according to HHS. After its review of those comments, the department acknowledged Feb. 18 that nearly two-thirds were opposed to rescinding the Bush administration rule.
In issuing the new regulation, HHS said the December 2008 rule “caused confusion and could be taken as overly broad.”
One provision retained in the new rule from the December 2008 regulation was the authorization of the Office for Civil Rights to investigate charges of violating conscience protections.
During the 2009 comment period, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land urged retention of the Bush-era regulation.
Repealing the rule would “rend the fabric of our democracy and open wide the door for discrimination,” wrote Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “To compel or coerce individuals to sacrifice their core convictions at the altar of government contrivances is an offense of the worst sort.”
The new regulation would seem especially to threaten the liberty of pro-life pharmacists, who could be required to fill prescriptions for morally objectionable products, such as the Plan B “morning-after” pill, which can act as an abortifacient.
Plan B is basically a heavier dose of birth control pills. Under the regimen, a woman takes two pills within 72 hours of sexual intercourse and another dose 12 hours later. The drug, also known as “emergency contraception,” works to restrict ovulation in a woman. It also can act after conception, thereby causing an abortion, pro-lifers point out. This mechanism of the drug blocks implantation of a tiny embryo in the uterine wall.
The Bush administration developed its rule after then-HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt became concerned about the willingness of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG) to protect the freedom of conscience of pro-life physicians. ABOG provides certification and recertification for obstetricians and gynecologists in the United States.
Leavitt wrote ABOG in March 2008 to seek clarification it would not support controversial recommendations from a committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. That committee said physicians “with moral or religious objections” should refer women seeking abortions to doctors who will perform them. The committee even said pro-life doctors should locate their practices near physicians who will do abortions.
ABOG’s response to his request “was dodgy and unsatisfying,” Leavitt said.
The rule issued by the Bush administration placed into federal regulations congressional measures enacted in the 1970s through 2005 that “prohibit discrimination on the basis of one’s objection to, participation in, or refusal to participate in, specific medical procedures, including abortion or sterilization,” according to HHS at that time.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.