Obama Plans to Roll Back 'Conscience' Rule Protecting Health Workers Who Object to Some Types of Care

The Rev. Joel Hunter said the move raises skepticism about the White House's talk of common ground.
The Rev. Joel Hunter said the move raises skepticism about the White House's talk of common ground. (John Raoux - AP)
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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Obama administration's move to rescind broad new job protections for health workers who refuse to provide care they find objectionable triggered an immediate political storm yesterday, underscoring the difficulties the president faces in his effort to find common ground on anything related to the explosive issue of abortion.

The administration's plans, revealed quietly with a terse posting on a federal Web site, unleashed a flood of heated reaction, with supporters praising the proposal as a crucial victory for women's health and reproductive rights, and opponents condemning it as a devastating setback for freedom of religion.

Perhaps most tellingly, the move drew deep disappointment from some conservatives who have been hopeful about working with the administration to try to defuse the debate on abortion, long one of the most divisive political issues.

"This is going to be a political hit for the administration," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of the Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., whom Obama recently named to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "This will be one of those things that kind of says, 'I knew it. They talk about common ground, but really what they want is their own way.' "

Administration officials stressed that the proposal will be subject to 30 days of public comment, which could result in a compromise. They said they remain committed to seeking a middle ground but acknowledged that will not always be possible.

"We recognize we are not going to be able to agree on every issue," said an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process has just begun. "But there remains a substantive area of common ground, and we continue to believe we can make progress and will make progress."

The announcement capped a week when anger among conservatives was already running high because of the ambitious progressive agenda outlined in the administration's proposed $3.6 trillion budget.

The debate centers on a Bush administration regulation, enacted in December, that cuts off federal funding for thousands of state and local governments, hospitals, health plans, clinics and other entities if they do not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists or other employees who refuse to participate in care they feel violates their personal, moral or religious beliefs.

The rule was sought by conservative groups that argued that workers were increasingly being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways for trying to exercise their "right of conscience."

Women's health advocates, family-planning proponents, abortion rights activists and others condemned the regulation, saying it created a major obstacle to providing many health services, including family planning and infertility treatment, and possibly a wide range of scientific research. After reviewing the regulation, newly appointed officials at the Health and Human Services Department agreed.

"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," said an HHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for the same reason. "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."

An array of family-planning groups and others praised the move.


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