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Protect the health conscience rule, Land urges HHS

WASHINGTON (BP)–Repealing a rule designed to protect medical professionals who morally object to such practices as abortion and assisted suicide would “rend the fabric of our democracy and open wide the door for discrimination,” Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land has told the federal government.

The president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) urged the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) neither to weaken nor strike down a regulation implemented by the same agency under the Bush administration. The rule — which went into effect just prior to President Obama taking office — was issued to clarify that federal law protects the rights of institutions and individuals not to participate in medical procedures to which they object on moral or religious grounds.

HHS, now under the Obama administration, announced March 10 it planned to cancel the regulation. It provided a 30-day public comment period until April 9, the date on which a letter from Land was sent to the department.

In his comments to HHS, Land said the Bush administration’s rule should be fully retained because:

— It enforces a series of conscience protections approved by Congress between the 1970s and 2005.

— There are increasing reports of health-care workers being pressured to compromise their convictions.

— A lack of protection could drive pro-lifers from medicine or prevent them from entering the profession, causing a strain on the health-care system.

— It will safeguard the freedom of pro-life patients to choose physicians and pharmacies in line with their beliefs.

— It will protect religious freedom as guaranteed in the First Amendment.

The final resolution of the rule could affect not only doctors but nurses, pharmacists, medical students, hospitals and insurance companies regarding such practices as abortion and such products as the Plan B “morning-after” pill and contraceptives with abortion-causing qualities. Some health-care providers already have reported coercion to go against their convictions. A survey of members of the Christian Medical Association found 41 percent said they had been discriminated against or pressured because they adhere to pro-life standards.

The ERLC understands, “as did our nation’s founders, that the right to conscience is not one given by government but by God,” Land said. “To compel or coerce individuals to sacrifice their core convictions at the altar of government contrivances is an offense of the worst sort.”

Reports of discrimination or coercion “include hospitals pressuring medical workers to perform or refer for abortions, insurers pressuring physicians to artificially inseminate lesbian couples, medical professors compelling students to receive abortion training and pharmacies coercing employees to dispense abortifacients such as Plan B or RU 486,” according to Land’s letter.

To refuse to implement the rule means confusion “would only persist among medical professionals and patients,” Land said.

In addition to his letter, Land signed onto comments from a diverse group that urged HHS to safeguard the conscience protections passed by Congress, whether it chooses to rescind the Bush rule or not.

Among the other seven signers were Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; Douglas Kmiec, professor of law at Pepperdine University School of Law; Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School, and Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners.

The Bush administration developed the 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.

A HHS official told The Washington Post the Bush rule was too broad and the new White House wanted to narrow the conscience clause.

On April 8, the Christian Medical Association reported 87 percent of adult Americans agreed in a recent survey it is important to make certain U.S. health-care workers “are not forced to participate in procedures and practices to which they have moral objections.”

The poll, conducted on the phone by The Polling Co., found 62 percent oppose the Obama administration’s plan to rescind the Bush regulation. The polling firm also found in an online survey 95 percent of faith-based doctors “would rather stop practicing medicine altogether than be forced to violate” their consciences.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.