March 9, 2009
The Obama administration recently proposed rescinding a US Health and Human Services regulation that shields health workers who refuse to participate in care they perceive as violating personal, moral or religious beliefs. The proposal will be subject to a 30-day public comment period, officials said.
Finalized in December, the HHS regulation accommodates doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health workers who refuse to perform abortion or assist in its provision and other similar services. Federal funding would be cut to state and local governments, hospitals, insurers, clinics, and other entities that do not obey the rule.
The regulation was sought by conservative groups who said health workers were increasingly subject to being fired, disciplined or otherwise penalized for trying to exercise their "right of conscience." The conservative Family Research Council and US Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other groups, condemned the Obama administration's move to rescind the rule.
However, women's health, family-planning, and abortion-rights advocates criticized the old regulation's language as being so broad as to potentially create a major barrier to health services.
"We've been concerned that the way the [Bush era] rule is written, it could make it harder for women to get the care they need," an HHS official said on condition of anonymity. "We recognize and understand that some providers have objections to providing abortions," the official said. "We want to ensure that current law protects them. But the Bush rule goes beyond current law and seems to have upset the balance."
A new rule would be more specific to abortion, the HHS official said. Some predict the new rule would ensure access to care while protecting workers who object to abortion.