Conscience Clauses Latest Battle in Abortion Wars

Article excerpt

The latest battle in the abortion wars seems to be shaping up around the matter of "conscience clauses" intended to protect health care workers who refuse to participate in certain procedures such as abortions or sterilizations because of personal or religious convictions.

At issue is the Obama administration's intent to rescind an 11th-hour Bush administration rule on the issue. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be accepting comment from the public until April 9 on its move to rescind the Bush rule.

Further clouding the lines is the fact that three federal laws currently exist to protect health care workers who have a conscientious objection to participating in certain medical procedures and a number of states have either enacted or are working on "conscience clause" legislation.

The Bush rule, issued in December and posted on the Web site of the Department of Health and Human Services in January just before the former president left office, was intended to clarify existing federal policy and to strengthen protection of doctors and nurses from being forced to violate their consciences.

Opponents say the Bush rule goes too far by including the right of medical personnel to refuse to follow advance directives for end-of-life care, to administer vaccines and transfusions, to prescribe or dispense contraceptives or to conduct treatments using methods derived from stem-cell research.

The rule was almost immediately challenged by a coalition of attorneys general from 13 states led by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who termed it "an outrageous rule" and one that "is an appalling insult and abuse--a midnight power grab to deny access to health care services and information, including even to victims of rape."

Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications in the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said in a statement in late February, "Efforts to nullify or weaken any conscience protection will under mine our national heritage of diversity and religious freedom, reduce patients' access to life-affirming health care and endanger the national consensus required to enact much-needed health care reform."

On March 6, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said there was concern in the conference that rescinding the Bush rule might mark the beginning of a rollback of already-existing protections.

The White House, however, on announcing its intent, released a statement saying that President Obama preferred a "carefully crafted" clause to Bush's version.

"He believes this issue requires a balance between the rights of providers and the health of women and their families, a balance that the last-minute Bush rule appears to upset," the statement said.

In remarking on the rescission of the rule, Health and Human Services said that some commenting on the Bush rule "asserted that the rule would limit access to patient care and raised concerns that individuals could be denied access to services, with effects felt disproportionately by those in rural areas or otherwise underserved. …