Federally funded health-care providers soon may be protected from pressure to violate their consciences by performing or participating in medical procedures they find morally objectionable.
A proposed regulation for protecting the conscience rights of health-care providers was released for public comment Aug. 21 by Michael Leavitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This comment period closed Sept. 25, less than two weeks after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted its comments to the department.
"There’s an effort right now … to put in place regulations through the Health and Human Services that will protect providers of medical services and institutions from being forced to perform or participate in activities that are morally objectionable. The reason why this is of great interest to the Catholic community is all of the pre-birth issues around abortion," said Jann Armantrout, life-issues coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester.
Anthony Picarello and Michael Moses, the USCCB’s general counsel and associate general counsel, respectively, praised the proposed regulation in a Sept. 12 letter to the Department of Health and Human Services. Such regulation is needed now more than ever, they wrote, because of "growing hostility on the part of some professional organizations and advocacy groups to rights of conscience in health care."
"We strongly commend the Secretary for publishing these proposed regulations," Picarello and Moses wrote. "For over three decades … Congress has sought to ensure that health-care institutions and professionals will not have to choose between abandoning medicine and violating their conscience. … The proposed regulations would implement these long-standing federal statutory protections."
According to the USCCB, the proposed regulation would clarify and enforce existing federal laws — passed between 1973 and 2004 — designed to protect the conscience rights of health-care workers.
"As with almost all legislation, you have to have rules and regulations to actually implement the law, and rules and regulations were never put into place for those particular pieces of legislation," Armantrout said.
The new regulation would affirm that the protections apply to institutional health-care providers and to individual employees who work for recipients of certain funds from the Department of Health and Human Services. It also would require recipients of these funds to certify their compliance with conscience-rights laws and designate the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights as the entity to receive complaints about discrimination addressed by conscience-rights laws.
The regulation also would require officials of the Department of Health and Human Services to work with state or local government entities found to be in violation of the laws, and to encourage those entities to undertake voluntary steps to achieve compliance. If such entities failed to comply voluntarily, the regulation calls for officials to "consider all legal options, including termination of funding and the return of funds paid out in violation of the nondiscrimination provisions," according to an Aug. 21 statement released by the Department of Health and Human Services.
"This proposed regulation is about the legal right of a health-care professional to practice according to their conscience. Doctors and other health-care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience. Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a health-care degree," Leavitt said in the statement.
Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel long have been waiting for a regulation to protect them from frequent pressures to participate in abortion, observed Deirdre McQuade, the USCCB’s spokesperson on abortion.
"Organizations calling themselves pro-choice are actually pro-coercion in seeking to deny the freedom of doctors and nurses," McQuade said in a statement. "Don’t doctors have the right to choose not to participate?"