Christian doctors and groups have applauded proposed regulations that would protect the right of conscience of health care workers who do not want to provide abortions.
"These regulations are desperately needed to protect First Amendment rights and implement federal law in what is becoming a jungle of coercion in healthcare," Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical Association (CMA), commented in a statement.
On Thursday, the Bush administration issued a proposal for stronger protections for health professionals who refuse to participate in abortions because of personal, moral or religious beliefs. The regulation also lets federal health officials pull funding from institutions that force employees to perform or participate in abortion services.
"Until now regulations had not been issued ensuring the implementation of numerous laws protecting conscience," said Family Research Council president Tony Perkins. "The absence of regulations has resulted in confusion and a lack of awareness within the medical community regarding their conscience rights, leaving healthcare personnel vulnerable to discrimination."
Mike Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, had requested the new regulation after hearing reports that health care workers were being pressured to perform duties they objected, he said, according to The Washington Post.
"This is about protecting the right of a physician to practice medicine according to his or her moral compass," he said.
CMA Senior Vice President Dr. Gene Rudd commented that the issue also affects students who want to enter the OB/GYN field.
"The effect of this intolerant and discriminatory atmosphere is most disturbing at the student level," Rudd said. "As first-year medical student Trevor Kitchens told us, ' I am currently very interested in OB/GYN, but I am afraid of the relationship between this field and abortion. My concern is that I will start a residence and would subsequently be required at some point to give a patient the option of abortion, which I would refuse. My fear is that taking this stand would cost me my residence position.'"
"Vital issues including abortion, assisted suicide, end of life decisions and other important ethical matters must not be matters of coercion but of conscience," Rudd added.
The regulation drew controversy in July when an early draft that had defined abortion to include contraceptive pills leaked. The one issued Thursday dropped the controversial language.
Informing reporters in a conference call that the language in the early draft led some to misconstrue the department's intent, Leavitt said the newly issued regulation "is consistent with my intent to focus squarely on the issue of conscience rights. This specifically goes to the issue of abortion and conscience."
He added, however, that the regulation "does not seek to resolve any ambiguity" in the area of birth control pills, Plan B and other forms of contraception that some consider equivalent to abortion.
The regulation remains broad, but the protection is one that is badly needed, supporters say.
"I think this provides broad application not just to abortion and sterilization but any other type of morally objectionable procedure and research activity," CMA head Stevens told The Washington Post. "We think it's badly needed. Our members are facing discrimination every day, and as we get into human cloning and all sorts of possibilities, it's going to become even more important."
Religious groups have commended Leavitt and are celebrating the step toward religious freedom.
"These regulations will ensure that pro-life medical personnel will not be forced to engage in the unconscionable killing of innocent human life," said Perkins. "Protecting the choice not to participate in abortions is a huge win for religious freedom and the First Amendment."