Obama Reaches Out Before Vatican Trip
'Robust' Health Worker Protection Backed

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009

President Barack Obama said today that he still favors a "robust" federal policy protecting health-care workers who have moral objections to performing some procedures even though he plans to roll back a Bush administration rule that expanded such protection.

Speaking to eight religion reporters at the White House before his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI next Friday, Obama sought to reassure Catholic health-care workers that they would not be forced to perform abortions and other procedures that violate the Church's teachings. Obama said he is a "believer in conscience clauses" and supports a new policy that would "certainly not be weaker" than the rules in place before the expansion late in President George W. Bush's administration.

Obama's comments were part of a broad interview that touched on issues including his hopes for his meeting with the pontiff, abortion and his struggle to choose a home church for him and his family.

Obama's trip to the Vatican will coincide with his participation in the Group of Eight summit, a meeting of leaders of major industrial nations, Wednesday to next Friday.

Obama said he hopes his meeting with the pope will lead to cooperation in several areas -- including Mideast peace, poverty, climate change and immigration -- in which he said Benedict has shown "extraordinary leadership."

But even though the two have areas of "deep agreement . . . there are going to be some areas where we've got some disagreements," the president added in the 45-minute session in the Roosevelt Room. Those areas include abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, which Obama supports but the Church says violate its teachings.

Several federal laws that have been in force since the 1970s protect health-care workers who do not want to participate in abortion and other procedures they find morally objectionable. The Bush administration said the new policy was designed to ensure those laws were enforced.

Shortly after taking office, Obama announced plans to roll back the Bush conscience-clause policy, which cut off federal funding for thousands of state and local governments, hospitals, health plans, clinics and other entities if they did not accommodate health-care workers who refused to participate in procedures they felt violated their personal, moral or religious beliefs. Critics of the Bush rule said it greatly expanded the types of people in the medical field who could object to procedures and the scope of health care covered by the protection.

The Health and Human Services Department is reviewing hundreds of thousands of public comments it received in response to the Obama administration's proposal.

Obama's plans have led to fears among Catholic health-care providers that they would be forced to perform abortions, sterilizations and other procedures that violate Church teachings despite federal laws protecting their right to refuse.

Obama said the new policy "may not meet the criteria of every possible critic of our approach, but it certainly will not be weaker than what existed before the changes were made."

Yesterday, a group representing Catholic health-care organizations welcomed the president's remarks, noting his use of the word "robust."

"That's the kind of statement from the White House that gratifies and reassures us," said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, which represents 1,600 Catholic hospitals and other health-care institutions.

Some conservative critics, however, dismissed the comments.

"Robust sounds good, but what does it mean?" said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which supports the Bush protections. "Without them, it is meaningless."

Obama also addressed his administration's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which has been negotiating between players on both sides of the abortion debate, seeking to find areas on which they can agree. However, the groups have clashed over the administration's desire to include funding for comprehensive sex education and contraception in any legislative package.

Yesterday, Obama said he recognized that this would contradict Catholic Church doctrine, "so I would not expect someone who feels very strongly about this issue as a matter of religious faith to be able to agree with me on that, but that's my personal view. We may not be able to arrive at perfectly compatible language on that front."

On a personal matter, the president said he has not chosen a home church in the Washington area -- and might not choose one particular congregation.

He said he and his family will attend chapel services at Camp David when they are at the presidential retreat in Maryland -- which he calls a "wonderful little congregation."

"How we handle church when we're here in D.C. is something that we're still figuring out," he said. "And I think that in the second half of the year, we will have made a decision."

Mindful of the disruption that his presence causes at a church, the Obama family might rotate among churches.

"Obviously, that takes away somewhat from the church experience of being part of a community and participating in the life of the church," he said. But "we are resigned now to the fact that we change the atmospherics wherever we go, and it may be more sensible for us to get in and out on any given Sunday and not try to create blockades around places where we attend."

Staff writer Rob Stein contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company