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Extending Right Of Conscience Rule To Cover More Workers, Treatments

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

The Bush administration is set to announce an expansion of the "right of conscience" rule that would allow all health care workers to refuse to participate in "objectionable procedures," such as abortion or birth control, the Los Angeles Times reports. Current law allows health care workers to decline to perform abortions, but the expanded rule would allow health care workers also to refuse to provide information or counseling about abortion or participate in other "objectionable procedures."

A draft of the rule says it would cover even "an employee whose task it is to clean the instruments."

HHS officials say the expanded rule would apply to "any entity" receiving federal funding, meaning about 584,000 entities could be affected, including 4,800 hospitals, 234,000 physician offices and 58,000 pharmacies.

HHS said the rule is necessary because of "an attitude that health care professionals should be required to provide or assist in the provision of medicine or procedures to which they object, or else risk being subjected to discrimination." In a media briefing, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said the rule was focused on abortion, not contraception.

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Supporters of the proposal said it will protect doctors who do not wish to perform abortions or provide birth control to unmarried women, or perform artificial insemination procedures. David Stevens, president of the Christian Medical Association, said, "The real battle line is the morning-after pill," adding, "Doctors should not be required to dispense a medication they have a moral objection to."

Critics of the rule say patients' health would be sacrificed to protect personal religious beliefs of providers. Judith Waxman, a lawyer for the National Women's Law Center, said, "This goes way beyond abortion," potentially affecting contraception, sperm donation and end-of-life care. She added, "This kind of rule could wreak havoc in a hospital if any employee can declare they are not willing to do certain parts of their job."

The American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association last month asked HHS to drop the rule, but Leavitt said he intends to issue the rule before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

If the regulation is issued before Dec. 20, it would be final by the time Obama takes office and would require new rule-making procedures to overturn it. Abortion-rights advocates believe it could be easier for Democrats in Congress to overturn the rule (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 12/1).

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, search the archives, and sign up for email delivery at kaisernetwork.org/email . The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. © 2007 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.