President Obama's Secretary for Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, issued new regulations on Feb. 17, canceling out numerous conscience protections for health care workers who have moral or religious objections to certain procedures.
The new rules claim to leave in place the protections for health care providers who oppose abortion and sterilization. However, they remove many other protections for caregivers, including those who are morally opposed to providing services such as in vitro fertilization, contraception – including chemical contraceptives that can cause an abortion – and facilitating sexual practices they consider wrong.
In her report describing the changes, Sebelius criticizes the Bush-era regulations, which clarified the rights of many conscientious objectors to opt of procedures, as “unclear and potentially overly broad in scope.”
Sebelius acknowledged in the final report that “a substantial number of comments in opposition to rescinding the 2008 Final Rule maintained that Roman Catholic hospitals would have to close, that rescission of the rule would limit access to pro-life counseling, and that providers would either leave the health care industry or choose not to enter it.”
In her Feb. 17 report, Sebelius sought to respond to Catholic health workers' concerns by noting that “under this partial rescission of the 2008 Final Rule, Roman Catholic hospitals will still have the same statutory protections afforded to them as have been for decades.”
However, it was precisely in order to solidify those decades-old “statutory protections” in significant ways, that the 2008 rule was made in the first place.
“The Department supports the longstanding federal health care provider conscience laws,” the secretary continued, “and with this Final Rule provides a clear process to enforce those laws.”
The purpose of the 2008 rule, however, was not simply to reiterate the content of existing laws, but to clarify how they should be applied, and to provide explicitly for their enforcement.
For this reason, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had praised the previous rule as a “much-needed implementation of long-standing laws” – saying it clarified many “undefined terms” that allowed state and local governments to “attack conscience rights as though they do not exist.”
With those “much-needed” rules and clarifications gone, Catholic hospitals and health care workers may find themselves facing difficult situations without explicit protections.
Sebelius pointed out that her department would still be willing to receive and consider their complaints.
The portion of the 2008 rule that enables the Office for Civil Rights to investigate complaints from conscientious medical objectors is “being retained,” she said.
“Under this Final Rule,” she offered, “health care providers who believe their rights were violated will now be able to file a complaint with the Department’s Office for Civil Rights in order to seek enforcement of those rights.”
Dr. J. Scott Ries, a board-certified family physician and a vice president of ministry at the 16,000-member Christian Medical Association, said the rule change touched on areas of “critical concern for pro-life patients, healthcare professionals and institutions.”
“The administration has made changes in a vital civil rights regulation without evidence or justification,” Dr. Ries said. He criticized the regulatory action as a move that “diminishes the civil rights that protect conscientious physicians and other healthcare professionals against discrimination.”