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Healthcare | The comment period on an Obama administration proposal to eliminate the conscience rights of health care workers expires Thursday night

WASHINGTON-Your conscience or your profession? Thursday is the last day the public can indirectly answer that question, as individuals and groups have until midnight to submit comments on an Obama administration proposal to eliminate a regulation to protect the conscience rights of health care workers.

On the chopping block is a federal regulation that just went into effect in January, which bolsters the ability of doctors and other caregivers to decline to participate in procedures they find morally objectionable, such as abortions.

The Obama administration moved quickly in announcing its intentions to rescind the federal regulation that the Bush administration established in its closing days. The public has had 30 days to comment on the proposed Department of Heath and Human Services rescission.

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Religious liberty groups and faith-based medical associations say losing the regulations would leave vulnerable the rights and job security of medical professionals who want to opt out of participating in procedures that violate their moral beliefs.

"Protections for conscience are older than the Constitution and are widely recognized in state, federal, and international law," said Luke Goodrich, legal counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "Rescinding the conscience regulation will remove crucial safeguards for health care workers and will force qualified individuals out of the profession solely because of their religious beliefs."

The Christian Medical Association (CMA) this week released results from a poll that showed 87 percent of those surveyed agreed it is important to "make sure that health care professionals in America are not forced to participate in procedures and practices to which they have moral objections."

The national telephone survey also showed that 63 percent support the existing conscience protection regulation while 62 percent oppose the Obama administration's proposal to get rid of it.

"These regulations put teeth into the law and ensure patients have the doctors and nurses they need," said CMA CEO David Stevens. "Removing them sends a clear message: 'It is open season on health care professionals of conscience. Discriminate at will.'"

According to Stevens, the rescission will mean the loss of many doctors and nurses in rural areas across the nation, putting those areas at risk and cutting off patient health care access in poor and medically underserved populations.

The CMA also released a second online poll of faith-based health care professionals, which found that 95 percent of physicians agreed with the statement: "I would rather stop practicing medicine altogether than be forced to violate my conscience."

Stevens said, " No reasonable patient wants a doctor doing a procedure on them with which they are not only uncomfortable but morally opposed to."

The CMA has asked for a meeting with President Obama and has created Freedom2Care (www.Freedom2Care.org), a website that individuals so far have used to send more 34,000 comments about the proposed rescission to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last week, the Senate voted 56 to 41, largely along party lines, against Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn's budget bill amendment preserving this right of conscience.

The amendment would have prohibited any of the budget's $634 billion health care reserve fund from being used to deny the freedom of conscience for health care providers to serve patients without violating their moral and religious convictions.

Also last week, two Democratic senators-Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska-sent a letter to President Obama asking him to keep the conscious clause protections: "Discriminating against health care providers because of their consciences or forcing coercion into their practices would be a substantial deviation from our shared goal of reducing abortions in America."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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