Monday, April 6, 2009


Defending the conscience rights of health care professionals and students:

What is the "conscience regulation"?

The regulation simply implements three civil rights laws passed by Congress over the past 35 years defending the conscience rights of health care workers to make ethical decisions on controversial issues.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized the conscience regulation on December 19, 2008.

The laws forbid discrimination against healthcare professionals who exercise their conscientious rights related to participation in certain controversial medical procedures--most notably, but not limited to, abortion and sterilization. The regulation applies to recipients of American tax dollars through certain HHS funding.

The HHS regulation notes that the intent of the regulation is to educate, raise awareness of, and provide for the enforcement of three existing laws protecting the conscience rights of health care workers and students: the Church Amendments (enacted at various times in the 1970s), section 245 of the Public Health Service Act (1996), and the Hyde-Weldon Amendment (first enacted in 2004 and then in every subsequent year).

Why is the new administration planning to rescind--get rid of--this regulation?

The introduction of the conscience-protecting regulation was met with violent opposition by abortion special interest groups.

Some commentators followed the talking points of these groups and distorted the scope and intent of the regulation, claiming that it was somehow a backdoor attempt to restrict access to contraception. That proved an implausible charge against an agency that in the same year budgeted over $1.6 billion for "family planning" programs, but protests continued regardless of the facts.

These inaccurate commentaries and the pressure of special interest groups, unfortunately, appear to have had an impact on administration policy.

It is our hope that public outcry and focusing attention on the actual language of the regulation and the positive impact of protecting conscience on health care will help the new administration recognize the benefit of keeping the regulation intact.

Some administration officials and abortion advocates have maintained that the regulation will somehow decrease women's access to health care. On the contrary, the regulation makes clear the protections that allow conscience-driven healthcare professionals to rebuff discrimination and continue to practice medicine. In doing so, the regulations help provide healthcare security, quality and quantity.

In reality, the effect of rescinding the regulation threatens to cause a crisis of access to health care. Many healthcare professionals faced with discrimination are likely to choose to leave medicine if forced to choose between their careers or violating cherished ethical standards.

Removing regulatory protections-or perpetuating the lack of awareness of legal protections--for healthcare professionals will have the net effect of decreasing access to healthcare. Consider, for example, estimates that between 15-20% of health care in the U.S. is provided by Catholic institutions, which historically have refused to participate in abortion. Imagine the impact on health care access if those institutions, which reportedly provide care for up to one in six hospital patients, are forced to shut down in order to honor conscience and ethical standards.

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