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A step backward

Obama's protection clause reversal discounts medical advances

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

At New York's Mount Sinai Hospital higher-ups pressure a nurse to participate in an abortion. Applications for a university's nurse residency program include a pledge to participate in abortions.

The Obama administration has already established a pattern of not aggressively pursing recent conscience protection cases such as these.

Now, after nearly two years of warnings, the administration is beginning to weaken the federal regulations designed to protect pro-life medical providers.

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The Department of Health and Human Services announced Feb. 18 that it is striking elements of a 2008 Bush administration order that bolstered the ability of medical caregivers to refuse to participate in procedures they find morally objectionable. The changes do not go as far as the administration originally intended or as conservatives feared: wiping out protections entirely. But, according to Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defense Fund, the action "leaves the how and if of enforcement of conscience protections completely under the discretion of an agency which says it agrees with Planned Parenthood."

The new regulations, which go into effect in 30 days, state that such rights should be trumped by other issues like patient access. Calling the 2008 protections "unclear and potentially overbroad in scope," the Obama administration changes largely deal with controversial contraceptives such as the Plan B drug.

"They are pulling the rug out from under faith-based providers," said J. Scott Ries, a physician and vice president of the Christian Medical Association. Ries fears that ambiguities in the new rules mean medical providers may come under attack for refusing either to refer patients to abortion providers or to include an abortion option while counseling.

Laws to protect the beliefs of caregivers have been in place since 1973. But President George W. Bush's 2008 executive order was needed due to advances in medical technology and pharmaceuticals. Eliminating enhanced protection, Ries argues, places pro-life doctors inside a 21st-century medical world armed with a four-decade-old law.

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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