HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released information yesterday about a proposed new rule that would strengthen protection for medical professionals who refuse to perform abortions for moral or religious reasons.

“Health care professionals should not be forced to provide services that violate their own conscience,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, in a conference call with reporters.

The Associated Press quoted Leavitt saying, “Freedom of conscience is not to be surrendered upon issuance of a medical degree.”

The rule, if confirmed, would apply to the nation’s several hundred thousand medical institutions that receive federal funding. It would compel them to certify in writing their compliance with three currently existing federal laws that allow health professionals to exempt themselves from performing procedures contrary to their conscience.

Leavitt told reporters the new rule would severely penalize violating institutions, including the loss of government funding, and make it easier for health care professionals who feel they’ve faced retaliation for their decisions of conscience to file a complaint.

The wording of the 42-page proposed rule also makes it clear that the right of conscience does not extend to doctors only but to any who “assist in the performance” of abortions. The rule specifically cites the example of nurses and workers who clean the equipment used in abortion and sterilization procedures.

Several organizations, including Planned Parenthood, have objected that the proposed rule is too vague and could limit patients’ access to reproductive services.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the AP that the rule “fails to give assurances that current laws about abortion will not be stretched to cover birth control.”

Leavitt, however, confirmed in his blog that while an earlier version of the rule leaked out with wording that may lead to that conclusion, the current wording strictly covers abortion and sterilization.

“Nothing in the new regulation in any way changes a patient’s right to any legal procedure,” Leavitt told the AP.

“This regulation is not about contraception,” he said. “It is very closely focused on abortion and a physician’s conscience.”

Meanwhile, pro-life groups are lauding the new rule.

“This proposal ensures that doctors and other medical personnel will retain the constitutional right to listen to their own conscience when it comes to performing or participating in an abortion,” Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, told the AP. “These regulations will ensure that pro-life medical personnel will not be forced to engage in the unconscionable killing of innocent human life.”

The proposed rule makes the case for its necessity within the text:

“There appears to be an attitude toward the health care professions that health care professionals and institutions should be required to provide or assist in the provision of medicine or procedures to which they object, or else risk being subjected to discrimination,” the rule states. “In some instances the standards of professional organizations have been used to define the exercise of conscience to be unprofessional, forcing health care professionals to choose between their capacity to practice in good standing and their right of conscience.”

Leavitt explained on his blog recent guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for example, could be interpreted to require a doctor to perform abortions to be considered competent. If a doctor won’t, he or she can’t practice medicine.

“Freedom of expression and action are unfit barter for admission to medical employment or training,” Leavitt told reporters.

Before the rule is finalized, the Department of Health and Human Services has established a 30-day public comment period. The text of the rule contains an invitation for people to submit comments directly to www.Regulations.gov or via email at [email protected]. If commenting online, people are asked to click on the “Comment or Submission” link and enter the keywords “provider conscience.”


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