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New Rule for Health Providers Stirs Objections

Kevin Freking / AP

December 18, 2008

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration, in its final days, issued a federal rule Thursday reinforcing protections for doctors and other health care workers who refuse to participate in abortions and other procedures because of religious or moral objections.

Critics say the protections are so broad they limit a patient’s right to get care and accurate information. For example, they fear the rule could make it possible for a pharmacy clerk to refuse to sell birth control pills without ramifications from an employer.

Under long-standing federal law, institutions may not discriminate against individuals who refuse to perform abortions or provide a referral for one. The administration’s rule is intended to ensure that federal funds don’t flow to providers who violate those laws, Health and Human Services officials said.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” said HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt.

The rule requires recipients of federal funding to certify their compliance with laws protecting conscience rights.

Despite multiple laws on the books protecting health providers, the administration argued that the rule was needed “to raise awareness of federal conscience protections and provide for their enforcement.”

But many groups described the rule as a last-minute push designed to make it harder for women to get services such as contraception or counseling in the event they are pregnant and want to learn all of their options.

Several medical associations, more than 100 members of Congress, governors and 13 attorneys general were among the many thousands who wrote the department to protest the rule after it was proposed. Opponents didn’t like the rule any better after it was finalized.

“In just a matter of months, the Bush administration has undone three decades of federal protections for both medical professionals and their patients,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “It replaced them with a policy that seriously risks the health of millions of women, then tried to pass it off as benevolent.”

Abortion opponents hailed the regulation because they said the lack of regulation had resulted in confusion and a lack of awareness.


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