Bush administration to implement regulation protecting healthcare providers' consciences

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt


On Thursday the Bush administration announced plans to implement a regulation that would protect doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers from being forced to provide services that violate their personal, moral, or religious beliefs. Under the regulation, which one pro-life leader called “badly needed,” federal officials may pull funding from hospitals, clinics, health plans, doctors’ offices, and other entities which do not accommodate employees with conscientious objections to such services.

"People should not be forced to say or do things they believe are morally wrong," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said, according to the Washington Post. "Health-care workers should not be forced to provide services that violate their own conscience."

Leavitt explained that he requested the new regulation after hearing reports that healthcare workers were being required to perform duties they found repugnant. As examples, he cited two professional organizations for obstetricians and gynecologists which he said might require doctors who object to abortions to refer patients to physicians who would procure them.

According to Leavitt, there is nothing in the regulation that would “in any way change a patient’s right to a legal procedure.”

The regulation, which could go into effect after a 30-day comment period, drops the language in a draft version that would have explicitly defined abortion a federal law or regulation as anything that interfered with a fertilized egg after conception. The rule reportedly remains broad enough to protect pharmacists and healthcare workers from providing birth control pills, “emergency contraception,” and other forms of contraception, and explicitly allows them to withhold information about such services and to refuse to provide referrals to patients.

The Washington Post reports that the regulation, which could cost more than $44 million to implement, aims at enforcing several federal laws passed in the 1970s which protected doctors and nurses who did not want to perform abortions after the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide.

Critics said the regulation was too wide-ranging in scope, especially its coverage of “participating in any activity with a reasonable connection to the objectionable procedure, including referrals, training, and other arrangements for offending procedures.”

Cecile Richards of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America claimed the regulation “poses a serious threat to women's health care by limiting the rights of patients to receive complete and accurate health information and services.”

She charged that the regulation risks having “politics and ideology” compromise “women's ability to manage their own health care.”

Others welcomed the regulation, the Washington Post says.

“I think this provides broad application not just to abortion and sterilization but any other type of morally objectionable procedure and research activity," said David Stevens of the Christian Medical and Dental Association. "We think it's badly needed. Our members are facing discrimination every day, and as we get into human cloning and all sorts of possibilities, it's going to become even more important."

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