The Department of Health and Human Services will begin accepting comments from the public this week on a proposal by the Obama administration to completely rescind federal regulations placed into effect by former President Bush that protect the right to conscience for healthcare workers.
The Obama administration moved late last week to "rescind in its entirety" the "conscience" rule, which the Bush administration passed in January.
The rule, which was introduced in August and finalized in December, is entitled "Ensuring That Department of Health and Human Services Funds Do Not Support Coercive or Discriminatory Policies or Practices in Violation of Federal Law."
The regulation mandated federally funded health institutions to certify their compliance with existing federal laws that uphold the rights of doctors and nurses to refuse a medical service on religious or moral grounds.
On Friday, Obama HHS officials filed a proposed rescission of the rule in the Federal Register, saying they were concerned the rule "would limit access to patient care" and that people, in rural areas and those otherwise underserved, "could be denied access to services."
"The Department believes that the comments on the August 2008 proposed rule raised a number of questions that warrant further careful consideration. It is important that the Department have the opportunity to review this regulation to ensure its consistency with current Administration policy," HHS officials wrote in the proposal.
The DHHS went on to say it finds it beneficial to review the "conscience" rule, accept further comments, and reevaluate the necessity for regulations implementing the statutory requirements under the rule.
"Thus, the Department is proposing to rescind the December 19, 2008 final rule, and we are soliciting public comment to aid our consideration of the many complex questions surrounding the issue and the need for regulation in this area," the filing states.
HHS is accepting public comments for 30 days beginning Tuesday, March 10, the publication date of the proposal.
The department in particular is seeking comments that provide specific examples on: whether there are problems that justify the need for the current rule; whether the rule reduces access to information and health care services, particularly by low-income women; whether the rule provides sufficient clarity to minimize the potential for harm resulting from any ambiguity and confusion that may exist because of the rule; and whether the objectives the rule might also be accomplished through non-regulatory means, such as outreach and education.
Family planning advocates, including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the largest abortion provider in the nation, hailed the move as "a common sense fix."
"Patients, especially low income women, deserve access to complete and accurate health care information and services, and today's action shows that this administration understands and will meet this need," said PPFA president Cecile Richards in a statement.
But pro-life advocates strongly opposed the proposal, saying a rescission of the "conscience" rule would put moral objectors at risk of discrimination.
Matt Bowman, legal counsel of the Christian-based Alliance Defense Fund, said a repeal of the current regulation could create "a situation where doctors may be forced to participate in abortions and patients may be forced to have their babies delivered by doctors who perform abortions."
Dr. Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, said the rules were already "well considered" before being implemented last year.
"There is no need to revisit them on behalf of vocal special interest groups," she stated.
Other vocal opponents of the rescission, including Dr. Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International president, have also highlighted the right of women and families to receive healthcare from doctors who share their moral convictions, including the sanctity of life.
"It is wrong for the U.S. government to condemn doctors who follow the Hippocratic principle of 'do no harm'. This is un-American," said Hartshorn.
The head of Heartbeart International - an interdenominational Christian association of over 1,000 pregnancy resource centers, maternity homes, non-profit adoption agencies, and medical clinics - also said the Obama proposal could result in bigger problems in the medical field.
"The reversal of this regulation could cause conscientious doctors to stop practicing medicine leaving a significant void in the availability of healthcare providers. And the problem will be compounded if the government attempts to force Catholic hospitals to offer abortion," she stated.
Denise Burke, AUL vice president of legal affairs added, "Proper enforcement of existing federal conscience protections is essential to mitigate the current medical crisis in our nation, especially the shortage of qualified providers."
President Barack Obama has been labeled as the most "pro-abortion" president by pro-life groups after he overturned several pro-life orders.
In January, Obama repealed the Mexico City Policy, which declared that American tax dollars would not fund international organizations involved in performing or promoting abortions abroad.
On Monday, the president is expected to sign an executive order Monday reversing a federal ban on embryonic stem cell research, which has drawn opposition from pro-life groups who decry the destruction of embryos in the process of harvesting stem cells.