Lawrence Jackson/AP
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt

Obama Administration to Revise Controversial “Conscience” Rule

February 27, 2009 04:15 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The Obama administration has started the process to reverse the Bush administration’s “conscience rule,” which allows medical workers to refuse treatment based on moral or religious grounds.

HHS to Rescind or Revise “Conscience” Rule

The Department of Health and Human Services informed the White House Office of Management and Budget Friday that it is beginning the process to rescind or revise the “conscience” rule, a last-minute Bush administration regulation that gives medical workers the right to refuse to provide care based on personal, religious or moral beliefs.

The controversial rule was passed on Dec. 19 and took effect Jan. 19, one day before President Barack Obama took office. Obama had spoken out against the rule, and Friday’s announcement came as no surprise.

Because it took effect before Obama took office, it must go through the rule making process, which begins with a 30-day period for public comment. An Obama official told The Washington Post that after the 30 days, the rule will be rescinded or revised.

“We support a tightly written conscience clause,” said the official. “We recognize and understand that some providers have objections about abortion, and we want to make sure that current law protects them.”

Background: The “conscience” rule

The rule applies to all employees, including janitors, who work for the more than 584,000 medical entities that receive federal funding, including hospitals, doctors' offices and pharmacies. The focus of the rule is to defend workers’ right to refuse abortion and birth control treatments, though it can also be applied to issues like euthanasia and stem cell research.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” said Mike Leavitt, former secretary of HHS, when the rule was passed. “This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience.”

The rule, which was proposed in office, faced stiff opposition from liberal organizations and politicians. On the campaign trail, Obama expressed his opposition to the rule, saying that he was “committed to ensuring that the health and reproductive rights of women are protected.”

In January, just before the rule took effect, eight states and several private organizations filed lawsuits demanding that the rule be overturned. “Individual beliefs should be respected, but should not determine whether vital health care is available,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

The most controversial aspects of the rule, involving pregnancy treatments for women, will now be overturned, according to The Washington Post’s source in the Obama administration. “We've been concerned that the way the Bush rule is written it could make it harder for women to get the care they need,” the official said. “It is worded so vaguely that some have argued it could limit family planning counseling and even potentially blood transfusions and end-of-life care.”

Reference: Text of HHS rule


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