Lawsuits Filed Over Rule That Lets Health Workers Deny Care

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

Seven states and two family-planning groups yesterday asked a federal court to block a controversial new federal regulation that protects health workers who refuse to provide care that they find objectionable.

In three lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut, the states and groups sought an immediate court order preventing the regulation from going into effect Tuesday and a permanent decision voiding the rule.

"On the way out, the Bush administration has left a ticking political time bomb that is set to explode literally on the day of the president's inaugural and blow apart women's rights," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who filed one of the suits on behalf of his state, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island. "This midnight rule is a nightmare for hospitals and clinics, as well as women."

Blumenthal's lawsuit challenges the regulation on several grounds, charging that it is too vague and overbroad and conflicts with other federal laws and state laws. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America filed a second suit on behalf of its affiliates, while the American Civil Liberties Union filed sued on behalf of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, which represents many state and county health departments, among other providers.

"We filed this lawsuit today on behalf of the millions of women whose health care has been put in jeopardy by the Bush administration's parting shot at women's health," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. "The courts must strike down this unconscionable, unconstitutional last-minute midnight rule."

Rebecca Ayer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which issued the regulation in December, said officials "have not had an opportunity to review the lawsuits, and we will respond to the court on any pending litigation. The department followed appropriate procedures to put the regulation in place, and the regulation is fully supported by law."

The regulation empowers federal officials to cut off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, health plan, clinic or other entity that does not abide by existing federal laws requiring them to accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other employees who refuse to participate in any care they consider objectionable on ethical, moral or religious grounds.

Conservative groups, abortion opponents and others sought the rule to safeguard workers who refuse to provide such care from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways, and they defended the regulation yesterday.

"The regulation is important, because we increasingly are seeing discrimination against health-care personnel who hold religious beliefs having to do with abortion and contraception," said David Stevens, chief executive of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. "Unless these conscience rights are protected, people are going to be driven out of health care."

Women's health advocates, family-planning proponents, abortion rights activists and others say it will create a major obstacle to providing many health services, including abortion, emergency contraception for rape victims, family planning, infertility treatment and end-of-life care, as well as possibly a range of scientific research.

President-elect Barack Obama has voiced objections to the regulation and could repeal it, and legislation has been introduced in Congress to block the rule, but both of those steps could take months to complete

"We are seeking a court order as quickly as possible," Blumenthal said. "We need this immediate order to prevent confusion and chaos."

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