Obama Administration Guts Healthcare Conscience Regulation

By Jonathan Imbody

On February 18 the Obama administration gutted the only federal regulation protecting conscientious healthcare professionals from discrimination.

While three long-standing federal conscience-protecting laws remain intact, the conscience-protecting regulation had been promulgated under the Bush administration to remedy documented pervasive discrimination against pro-life physicians and others in disregard of the anti-discrimination laws.

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius effectively eviscerated a sensible Bush-era regulation that had finally put teeth to bipartisan federal civil rights laws enacted over the past three decades. Those anti-discrimination laws were passed, all after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, as a way to keep physicians, nurses, hospitals and others from being forced out of medicine simply for following life-affirming ethical standards such as the Hippocratic oath.

But abortion advocates hyperventilated  when it appeared that those laws would actually be implemented and enforced by the conscience protection regulation, which took effect in January 2009.

Cecile Richards of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America had said, “It is going to cause chaos among providers across the country.”

Then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had said: “It threatens the health and well-being of women and the rights of patients across the country.”

Of course, none of their doomsday predictions even faintly materialized in the over two years since the original regulation took effect. In explaining Friday’s regulation change, HHS presented no evidence whatsoever of any hindrance to any patient, procedure or prescription.
The complete lack of evidence didn’t seem to matter a whit, despite President Obama’s vow in his Inaugural Address to “restore science to its rightful place.”

The administration’s radical action again suggests tone deafness to the American public. Of the over 300,000 comments HHS received regarding rescission, twice as many opposed rescission as supported it. The Polling Company in 2009 conducted a nationwide scientific polling of the public and also of faith-based healthcare professionals. The results revealed that:

·        An overwhelming 63% of the public supported the conscience protection regulation whereas only 28% opposed the conscience protection regulation.

·        Only 30% indicated support for the Obama administration’s plan to get rid of the regulation, whereas 62% opposed the administration’s plan.

·        88% of American adults said it is either “very” or “somewhat” important to them that they share a similar set of morals as their doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers.

·        Nine of ten faith-based physicians agreed, “I would rather stop practicing medicine altogether than be forced to violate my conscience.”

In other words, faith-based healthcare professionals and institutions are ready to walk away from medicine if denied the ability to practice medicine according to conscientiously held ethical standards.

I tried to drive home that point in a meeting I had at the White House in 2009 with Obama officials regarding the conscience regulation and abortion in general. I pointed out that Mr. Obama and his officials never provided a concrete reason for trashing the reg, that the reg merely implemented existing federal law, and that it was crucial to preserving patient access to the pro-life physicians, hospitals and clinics across the country that depend upon conscience protections to practice medicine.

Especially in states already facing critical physician shortages–such as Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Delaware–losing just one physician can erase healthcare access for thousands of patients. Hardest hit are poor patients and those who live in medically underserved areas.

The recent regulatory action makes all the more vital passing bills pending in the 112th Congress to protect healthcare access with conscience protections.  For example, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 3), offered by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ); the Protect Life Act (H.R. 358), offered by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.);  and the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 361) offered by Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), all forbid discrimination related to abortion, in certain contexts.

Abortion ideology has taken root in much of medical academia and healthcare institutions and has resulted in both overt and subtle discrimination that laws alone cannot adequately address. Civil rights laws by themselves, it should be remembered, did not protect minorities from many forms of discrimination.

True civil rights protection requires cultural change. A long-term program of education within the medical community and in the public is needed to help build awareness among conscientious healthcare professionals of their civil rights and a respect for those rights by all. Only then will we begin to restore medicine to its ethical moorings and protect the patients who depend upon ethical and compassionate healthcare professionals.

The author serves as Vice President for Government Relations for the Christian Medical Association (www.cmda.org)and also manages a coalition of conscience-supporting organizations, Freedom2Care (www.Freedom2Care.org).

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