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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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"The Obama administration is taking the right step forward to rescind this misguided rule," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who has introduced legislation to overturn the regulation.

But the Family Research Council, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others condemned it.

"It is open season to again discriminate against health-care professionals," said David Stevens, head of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. "Our Founding Fathers, who bled and died to guarantee our religious freedom, are turning over in their graves."

The announcement -- which follows an administration decision to lift restrictions on federal funding of international family-planning groups that perform abortions or provide abortion information -- was also disappointing to some who have been working more closely with the administration on reducing the number of abortions.

"I think what was in place was as good as one could find in terms of seeking and securing common ground," said the Rev. Frank Page, the immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and another member of Obama's faith council. "It's a matter of respect. I felt like what was in place was that middle ground of common respect."

Administration officials stressed that the president remains committed to protecting the rights of health-care workers who do not want to participate in abortions; such rights have been guaranteed for decades by several federal laws.

"We recognize and understand that some providers have objections to providing abortions. We want to ensure that current law protects them," the HHS official said. "But the Bush rule goes beyond current law and seems to have upset the balance."

The administration is open to a new rule that would be more focused on abortion, the official said, adding, "We believe that this is a complex issue that requires a thoughtful process where all voices are heard."

Some predicted that the administration will produce a narrower regulation that protects workers who object to abortion but ensures access to other types of care.

"If the president kept in place the conscience clause in regard to abortion but reversed it in regard to birth control, most Americans would agree that's common ground," said Rachel Laser of the group Third Way, which is working to find compromise approaches to a number of contentious issues.

But Page noted that some health-care workers consider certain forms of birth control, such as the morning-after emergency contraception pill, to be the moral equivalent of abortion.

"If they choose not to be part of the distribution of that, that should be their conscience and their right," Page said.

While some family-planning groups acknowledged privately that they might consider a compromise, others said they are doubtful that any regulation is needed.

"Our general feeling is this was an area that does not cry out for further clarification," said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "I would be skeptical."


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