The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has condemned the withdrawal of federal protections for medical workers who oppose certain treatments on moral grounds.

Deirdre McQuade, Assistant Director for Policy and Communications at the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said on Feb. 18 that it was “very disappointing” for the Obama administration to “eliminate much of the existing regulation on conscience” issued in 2008.

The new rule maintains protections for medical workers who oppose abortion and sterilization. However, it removes many other similar provisions – such as those pertaining to in vitro fertilization, contraception (including abortifacient chemical contraceptives), and other morally controversial areas of medicine.

“The final rule issued today eliminates important clarifications that would have helped in interpreting and enforcing longstanding federal statutes protecting the conscience rights of health care providers,” McQuade noted. “It also eliminates a regulatory requirement that recipients of federal funds certify compliance with those statutes.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was strongly supportive of the 2008 rule. McQuade
hailed it at the time as a  “much-needed implementation of long-standing laws,” which would provide  important clarification as to what existing laws meant and how they would be enforced.

But Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama's Secretary for Health and Human Services, called the previous guidelines “unclear and potentially overly broad in scope” in her explanation of the new rules.

Although the laws that were implemented through the 2008 rule will remain on the books, caregivers seeking to register a conscientious objection – or show that their rights were violated – may have a significantly harder time proving their case or getting a hearing in the future.

However, some of the mechanisms for enforcing caregivers' established rights will remain in place. McQuade said that move offered “reasons for hope” despite the “disappointment” of the new guidelines.

“The Administration says it will take initiative to increase awareness of the conscience statutes, work to ensure compliance with them, and require that government grants make clear that compliance is required,” McQuade noted.

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“We look forward to working with the Administration and Congress to ensure that these endeavors are carried out, so providers receive the full conscience protection they are due.”

McQuade also reiterated the bishops' hope that the Obama administration would “place its full support behind efforts in Congress to clarify conscience protections and make them more secure” through initiatives such as the Protect Life Act, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, and the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act.