Obama Plans to Rescind Healthcare 'Conscience Clause'

Matthew Berger | Religion News Service | Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Obama Plans to Rescind Healthcare 'Conscience Clause'

March 3, 2009

WASHINGTON (RNS) -- The Obama administration announced Friday (Feb. 27) plans to rescind regulations that allow healthcare workers to abstain from performing medical procedures they object to on moral grounds.

The Bush administration authored the rule shortly before leaving office last December, primarily to shield those with religious or moral opposition to abortion. It said healthcare workers cannot be discriminated against for refusing to participate in objectionable procedures, and facilities that did not accommodate employees with objections could lose federal funding.

It is one of several abortion-related measures the new White House is seeking to overturn. Last month, the administration changed regulations that had previously forbidden foreign aid from benefiting entities that provide abortion.

Federal law allows healthcare providers to abstain from performing abortions. The HHS regulation instituted last year was interpreted to protect additional procedures, like sex change operations and assisted suicide, as well as possibly even vaccinations and family planning.

Obama administration officials told The Washington Post they believe the rule is too broad and could prevent women from receiving the care they need. They held open the possibility of a more narrow regulation.

The reversal in policy at the Department of Health and Human Services drew strong support from reproductive rights advocates, who said the rule placed doctors' views above the patient.

"The bottom line is that, under the guise of protecting the conscience of healthcare providers, the regulation would have denied women the right to follow their conscience and make reproductive decisions according to their religious and moral beliefs," said Rev.

Carlton W. Veazey, the president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Conservative groups raised concerns that, with the reversal, doctors could once again face professional repercussions for not performing abortions.

"These regulations would have ensured that healthcare workers are not forced to participate in the performance or promotion of abortion against their will," said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council. "President Obama's intention to change the language of these protections would result in the government becoming the conscience and not the individual."

Deirdre McQuade, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said "efforts to nullify or weaken any conscience protection will undermine our national heritage of diversity and religious freedom," among other negative consequences.

The White House Office of Management and Budget said Friday it would review the regulation, the first step towards reversing it, and will eventually hold a 30-day comment period before acting. The rule remains in effect until it is reversed.

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