WASHINGTON (BP)–Siding once again with abortion rights advocates, the Obama administration took the first step Feb. 27 toward unraveling Bush administration regulations meant to protect health-care workers from being forced to take part in abortions and other medical procedures to which they morally object.
Months in the making, the regulations were put in place by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during the final weeks of Bush’s term and took effect just prior to Obama taking the oath of office. The Christian Medical Association, which supported the new rules, released a survey showing that 41 percent of its members had been “pressured to compromise Biblical or ethical convictions.” The rules protect those types of health-care workers from being fired or disciplined.
But the new regulations appear to be on their way out, or at least drastically changed. According to multiple media reports, the White House Office of Management and Budget announced Feb. 27 it was reviewing an HHS proposal to lift the regulations. Once the office has reviewed the proposal, The Washington Post reported, it will be published in the Federal Register, opening a 30-day period for public comment.
“We are proposing rescinding the Bush rule,” an unidentified HHS official told the newspaper.
Rescinding the rule will impact health-care workers who have moral objections to everything from abortion to embryonic stem cell research to the morning-after pill.
“It’s a sad day for medical practitioners, doctors, nurses and pharmacists, because it may very well force many of them to choose between practicing their calling and obeying their conscience,” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press. “The rules put into place by the Bush administration were necessary to protect people in the medical profession who believe that assisting in or performing abortions or giving treatments that cause abortions is immoral and the taking of human life.
“If medical practitioners are denied this right of conscience,” Land added, “it will be much more difficult for pro-life Christians to continue practicing medicine in many areas of medical practice.”
The HHS official told The Washington Post that the Bush rules are too broadly written and that the Obama administration supports a “tightly written conscience clause.” The rules apply to facilities that receive federal funding.
“We recognize and understand that some providers have objections about abortion, and we want to make sure that current law protects them,” the HHS official said. “We want to be thoughtful about this.”
Whether any re-worded regulation would appease pro-lifers remains to be seen. Pro-lifers likely will be concerned that even if a new regulation protects medical workers from being forced to perform abortions, it may not protect them from being forced to recommend a doctor who would perform such a procedure. Additionally, any new regulation may not — as the Bush rule does — protect workers from being required to give patients the controversial morning-after pill.
“The morning-after pill is an abortifacient in that if conception has taken place, it prevents the newly created human being from implanting itself and continuing the pregnancy,” Land said. “So it causes the death of an unborn child. The fact that one does not know whether conception has occurred is irrelevant, because the purpose of the abortifacient is to kill any conceived life that is present, and for people who are pro-life, this is the destruction of God-created life.”
David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical Association, said in a statement that rescinding the rules will negatively impact thousands of pro-life healthcare workers.
“We hear a lot of rhetoric from abortion advocates about the government not interfering with the physician-patient relationship,” Stevens said. “Why is this argument no longer employed when the physician and the patient disagree with abortion on demand? It would appear that for all the abortion ‘choice’ rhetoric, ‘choice’ is really a one-way street. When it comes to pro-life individuals, abortion choice quickly turns into abortion mandate.”
The rule developed during the Bush administration after then-HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt expressed concern about the willingness of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG) to safeguard 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 that the board 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 in an Aug. 21 post on his weblog at the HHS website.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press, with reporting by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.