New HHS rule would protect pro-life docs

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WASHINGTON — The freedom of conscience of pro-life doctors and other health-care providers would be protected under a new rule proposed by the Bush administration.

The regulation, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Aug. 21, would clarify that federal law protects the rights of institutions and individuals not to participate in abortion and other medical procedures to which they object on moral or religious grounds. Noncompliance could result in the withholding of federal funds to more than 580,000 hospitals, nursing homes, medical schools, doctors' offices and other recipients.

"Doctors and other health-care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said in announcing the proposed rule. "Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a health-care degree."

Pro-life advocates commended the regulation, while abortion rights supporters criticized it.

"The Bush administration and the Department of Health and Human Services are to be applauded for taking important steps to protect the freedom of conscience of physicians and other health-care providers in the United States who find the wholesale termination of the lives of our preborn citizens to be unconscionable and reprehensible," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "As a society, we should be encouraging conscience in our nation's health-care providers, not seeking to coerce consciences against their wills."

David Stevens, chief executive officer of the Christian Medical Association (CMA), said in a written statement the rule is "desperately needed to protect First Amendment rights and implement federal law in what is becoming a jungle of coercion in health care."

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America objected to the regulation. "As one of the leading women's health-care providers and advocates, Planned Parenthood will not stand by and watch the Bush administration deny quality, affordable health care and accurate information to women," said Cecile Richards, president of the country's leading abortion provider, in a written statement.

The regulation's proposal came after a committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said in a November recommendation physicians "with moral or religious objections" should refer women seeking abortions to doctors who will perform them. The ACOG committee even said pro-life doctors should locate their practices near physicians who will do abortions.

Leavitt wrote the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG) in March seeking clarification it would not support the ACOG committee's language and thereby threaten pro-life doctors with loss of their ABOG certification. The board's response "was dodgy and unsatisfying," Leavitt said in an Aug. 21 post on his weblog at the HHS website.

ABOG provides certification and recertification for obstetricians and gynecologists in the United States.

The proposal will place into federal regulations congressional measures that "prohibit discrimination on the basis of one's objection to, participation in, or refusal to participate in, specific medical procedures, including abortion or sterilization," according to HHS. These federal laws include measures enacted in the 1970s through 2005, the department reported. They include prohibitions on discrimination by federal, state and local governments against institutions or individuals, including those who refuse to take part in or train for the performance of abortions, as well as to make referrals for the procedures.

CMA reported 40 percent of its members say they have been discriminated against or pressured because they adhere to pro-life standards.

"Sometimes the discrimination and coercion because of life-affirming views is subtle, such as denying admission to medical students, training privileges to residents or promotions to graduate physicians," CMA Senior Vice President Gene Rudd said in a written release. "Other times a line is clearly and overtly drawn between either participating in unethical actions or losing their position or career."

There will be a 30-day comment period on the proposed rule before HHS issues a final version.