Obama Admin Weakens Protections for Pro-Life Medical Workers

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 18, 2011   |   4:12PM   |   Washington, DC

The long-awaited decision by President Barack Obama to overturn conscience protections the Bush administration put in place to protect pro-life medical workers who don’t want to be involved in certain medical procedures has finally occurred.

In 2008, the Bush administration issued a rule that prohibited recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and health care aides who refuse to take part in medical procedures to which they have religious or moral objections. The rule implemented existing conscience protection laws that ensure medical professionals cannot be denied employment because they do not want to assist in abortions.

At the end of February 2009, the Obama administration announced it began “reviewing” the regulations implementing conscience laws, the first step toward rescinding the rule.

Today, the administration rescinded part of the protections today with the Health and Human Services Department scrapping a portion of the rule, which it called “unclear and potentially overbroad in scope.” Obama officials put a new rule in place that leaves in place protections on abortion but offers no protection for medical workers who have moral or religious objections to dispensing or giving to women the Plan B drug or other emergency contraception that could act in some cases as an abortion drug.

“The department supports clear and strong conscience protections for health-care providers who are opposed to performing abortions,” the rule states, according to a Washington Post report.

The new regulation goes into effect in 30 days and the Post says it ensures no federal funds can be used to “support coercive or discriminatory policies or practices in violation of federal law.”

“The administration strongly supports provider conscience laws that protect and support the rights of health care providers, and also recognizes and supports the rights of patients. Strong conscience laws make it clear that health care providers cannot be compelled to perform or assist in an abortion. Many of these strong conscience laws have been in existence for more than 30 years. The rule being issued today builds on these laws by providing a clear enforcement process,” a statement from HHS said.

Reacting to the decision, Dr. J. Scott Ries, speaking for the 16,000-member Christian Medical Association, protested what he called a decision to “weaken the only federal regulation protecting the exercise of conscience in health care.”

“The administration has made changes in a vital civil rights regulation without evidence or justification,” he told LifeNews.com. “The administration presented no evidence of any problems in healthcare access, prescriptions or procedures that have occurred in the two years since the original regulation’s enactment that would justify any change in this protective regulation.”

Ries continued: “The administration, for example, contends that a rule change is necessary to protect access to contraception, but absolutely no evidence is presented to justify any such concern. In the process, the administration blatantly ignores the scientific evidence that certain controversial prescriptions that abortion advocates promote as contraception are actually potential abortifacients, ending the life of a living, developing human embryo. This is a critical concern for pro-life patients, healthcare professionals and institutions.”

“The Obama administration’s regulatory action today diminishes the civil rights that protect conscientious physicians and other healthcare professionals against discrimination. Any weakening of protections against discrimination against life-affirming healthcare professionals ultimately threatens to severely worsen patient access to health care,” the pro-life doctor said. “Losing conscientious healthcare professionals and faith-based institutions to discrimination and job loss especially imperils the poor and patients in medically underserved areas. We are already facing critical shortages of primary care physicians, and the Obama administration’s decision now threatens to make the situation far worse for patients across the country who depend on faith-based health care.”

National survey results show that over nine of ten faith-based physicians, who are among the most likely to be serving the poor and those in medically underserved areas, indicate they would rather leave the profession if denied the ability to practice medicine according to conscientiously held ethical standards. Survey results also indicate that 20% of faith-based medical students say they are “not pursuing a career in Obstetrics or Gynecology” because of perceived discrimination and coercion in that field.

Dr. Ries added, “Stories told to me by medical students across the country indicate that the threat of being forced to participate in abortion procedures and violate their moral integrity is enough to steer them in the opposite direction. That means even fewer physicians for women in the future in this specialty that is already facing critical shortages.”

The last information the Obama administration made public on the likely attempt to overturn the conscience rules came in December, when Obama attorneys indicated the Obama administration was still working to overturn conscience rights for medical professionals on abortion put on the books by the Bush administration. The information came to light from legal papers the administration filed in a case the state of Connecticut launched against the conscience protections.

In a document filed in federal courtin November, Obama administration attorneys admitted that the administration wants to finalize a rescission of the conscience rules but has been delayed because of other business — likely due to the HHS working on implementing the provisions of the ObamaCare law.

HHS “hope[d] to have an internal draft final rule prepared in the near future, but that the schedule is necessarily tentative given the possibility of unforeseen delays and the need to devote time and resources to other agency priorities,” the November legal paper said.

The Obama administration filed another legal paper December 1 stating “HHS still cannot be certain of a date for completing the rulemaking” but added “HHS expects to have a final rule published in the Federal Register within sixty to ninety days – i.e., as early as January 31, 2011, and no later than March 1, 2011.”

Last week, members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius asking her to explain where the administration was at vis-a-vis the rule rescission. The letter asked Sebelius to explain why her department is considering repealing the conscience protections in light of known attacks on such workers — and they cited two situations warranting a reconsideration of any rescission decision.

One of the situations cited involves a nurse forced against her conscience by New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital to participate in an abortion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld the dismissal of her federal lawsuit filed by ADF attorneys, leaving only an ongoing investigation by HHS as the means to defend her federally protected rights while her New York state lawsuit continues.

Planned Parenthood and other plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit State of Connecticut v. United States of America are seeking to tear down the Bush regulations — and that is the case that sparked the legal paperwork announcing the timeline. That’s because the Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a motion to intervene in that case on behalf of Cenzon-DeCarlo in December.

“Because the defendants, Sebelius and the Obama administration, want to dismantle the regulation as the plaintiffs desire, little adequate defense exists for the regulation and for health care workers protected by a federal law known as the Church Amendment. The Church Amendment prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating against pro-life health care workers but its enforcement may be limited without the implementing regulation that directs HHS to conduct investigations,” ADF explains.

Another situation cited by the House letter to Sebelius involves Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

In January, ADF attorneys filed complaints with HHS over problematic language on the applications for Vanderbilt’s nurse residency program which included a pledge to participate in abortions. The university changed the language, but only after ADF filed the complaints.