New Federal Conscience Rule

“The Bush administration, in its final days, has issued a federal rule reinforcing protections for doctors and other health care workers who refuse to participate in abortions and other procedures because of religious or moral objections.”

That’s how Associated Press describes the new conscience protection instituted yesterday by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

The new rule requires all recipients of HHS funding to certify they are in compliance with laws protecting conscience rights to refuse to participate in actions related to abortion. It also clarifies that the rules regarding non-discrimination protections “apply to institutional health care providers as well as to individual employees working for recipients of certain funds from HHS,” according to a Dec. 18 HHS press release.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” Leavitt said in the press release. “This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience.”

Associated Press noted in its article, “Critics of the rule say the protections are so broad that they limit a patient’s right to get care and accurate information. For example, they fear the rule could make it possible for a pharmacy clerk to refuse to sell birth control pills and face no ramifications from an employer.”

In fact, this is precisely why the new HHS rule is embraced so positively by Catholics and other pro-life Americans. They say it’s a grave injustice that a pharmacy employee — or any other health care worker who follows his conscience and refuses to participate in anti-life actions — should ever face a risk of punishment for actions such as declining to dispense the birth-control pill, which has a known abortifacient effect according to numerous medical experts.

The Catholic Church also teaches that use of contraceptives is gravely immoral. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” (no. 2370).

The Associated Press article reported, “Several medical associations as well as a group of 13 attorneys general were among the many thousands who wrote to the department to protest the rule after it was proposed.” But the article made no mention of the fact that many other organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have publicly declared their support for the rule.

In a letter he sent July 18 to all members of Congress, Cardinal Justice Rigali, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said, “I am writing on an issue that should be a matter of agreement among members who call themselves ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’: the freedom of health care providers to serve the public without violating their most deeply held moral and religious convictions on the sanctity of human life.”

In August, after the draft of the new regulation after it was released for public comment, the bishops issued a statement that “welcomed the published regulation as a way to protect medical personnel from being coerced to violate their consciences in federally funded programs.”

The bishops issued another statement of support yesterday for the new regulation.

“Catholic health care providers will especially welcome this mark of respect for the excellent life-affirming care they provide to all in need,” said Deirdre McQuade, the bishops’ spokesperson on abortion. “But Catholics do not stand alone in opposition to the deliberate destruction of nascent human life. All health care providers should be free to serve their patients without violating their most deeply held moral and religious convictions in support of life.”

— Tom McFeely