President Obama Overturns Bush-Era Regulations On Medical ‘Conscience’

The Obama administration in mid-February officially overturned a restrictive policy from the George W. Bush years that dealt with health care and the right of “conscience.”

In yanking the regulations, the Obama administration nullified a policy put in place in December of 2008 during the waning days of the Bush administration. In an 11th-hour move, Bush issued sweeping rules giving health-care workers a right to refuse to take part in any procedure that they say violates their religious beliefs.

Critics, including Americans United, charged that the Bush regulations were too broad. AU said the far-reaching sweep of the regulations extended beyond reproductive health care, such as sterilization and abortion, to cover areas such as end-of-life directives, care of patients with HIV and even use of psychiatric medicines.

At the time, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn observed in a press release, “This regulation was a parting gift from President Bush to the Religious Right, and it ought to be returned to sender. The last thing this country needs is more Religious Right meddling in our health care.”

Early in his administration, Obama proposed rescinding the rules. The new regulations were published by the Department of Health and Human Services in February. They retain some conscience-based rights but reject others as too sweeping.

For example, nurses and other medical professionals can still refuse to take part in abortion or sterilization operations. But the new rules do not recognize the right of a pharmacist to refuse to dispense certain medications or of an ambulance driver to refuse to transport a woman who needs an abortion.

The website RH Reality Check, which monitors news about reproductive issues, said there were two important features of the new regulations: “One is that the administration in no uncertain terms clarifies that providers may not refuse to treat persons even if ‘lifestyle,’ ‘sexual orientation,’ or other considerations offend their consciences,” stated the site. “The second is that the administration makes explicit that contraception cannot be equated with abortion and therefore providing contraception is not covered by conscience provisions.”

The changes come at a time when sectarian interference in health care has become a growing concern. A round of mergers between Roman Catholic and secular hospitals has led to a loss of reproductive services in some parts of the country. (See “Prescription for Disaster,” March 2011 Church & State.)

At the same time, Religious Right groups are stepping up their efforts to gain control over Americans’ health care. An effort by Congress to redefine rape and make it harder for victims of sexual assault to get abortions collapsed in the face of widespread public outrage, but the attack on reproductive services goes on.

The House of Representatives, for example, has voted to defund Planned Parenthood, even though the group is already not permitted to use federal funds to pay for abortions. It uses the funds to provide medical services for poor women, reproductive health care information to teenagers and so on.

Yet the House, bowing to Religious Right pressure, voted to yank the funding.