HHS challenges threat to pro-life doctors

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has entered the fray over the conscience rights of pro-life physicians.

Michael Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, has called on the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG) to clarify that it will not punish doctors who decline to perform abortions and refuse to refer patients to physicians who will do abortions.

Leavitt called for ABOG to confirm it will not rely on a controversial recommendation by the Committee on Ethics of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

In a position paper issued in November, the ACOG committee said pro-life physicians should refer women seeking abortions to doctors who will perform the procedures. The statement also said doctors "with moral or religious objections" should locate their practices near physicians who will perform abortions.

Leavitt wrote ABOG Executive Director Norman Gant on March 14 after a new bulletin from his organization seemed to indicate support for the ACOG committee's language, thereby threatening pro-life doctors with loss of their certification if they refuse to violate their conscience and refer women to other physicians to perform abortions.

"I am concerned that the actions taken by ACOG and ABOG could result in the denial or revocation of Board certification of a physician who — but for his or her refusal, for example, to refer a patient for an abortion — would be certified," Leavitt wrote.

Such a "denial or revocation" of certification could result in federally funded state and local governments, as well as other organizations, punishing affected doctors, which could break federal laws protecting the conscience rights of healthcare providers, Leavitt said.

In a December letter, the Christian Medical Association (CMA) and other pro-life advocates urged ACOG to withdraw the ethics panel's paper. "The paper indicates that ACOG views the exercise of conscience and faith not so much as a cornerstone right in a democracy or as a historic hallmark of medicine, but rather as an inconvenient obstacle to abortion access," the letter said.

Greg Phillips, an ACOG spokesman, told National Public Radio the November position paper is an opinion and not a rule that certified obstetricians-gynecologists must follow.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in California sided with the United States government and three medical organizations March 18 in rejecting that state's challenge of a law that prohibits discrimination against pro-life physicians.

Judge Jeffrey White ruled that California's sovereignty and interests had not been violated by the Weldon Amendment, which bars federal funds for any state government that discriminates against a health-care professional or institution because of a refusal to perform or pay for abortions or refer patients for the procedure. White denied the state's request for summary judgment and granted summary judgment to the federal government and the medical groups.

"Pro-life medical professionals shouldn't be discriminated against for abiding by their beliefs," Casey Mattox of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) said in a written statement after the decision. "The Weldon Amendment remains a critical protection for the rights of conscience of pro-life healthcare workers."

CLS and the Alliance Defense Fund represented the Christian Medical Association, the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Fellowship of Christian Physician Assistants in the federal court in San Francisco.

The Weldon Amendment is named after Rep. Dave Weldon, R.-Fla., chief sponsor of the measure, which was enacted in 2004.