Conscience regulations to become law just before Obama takes office

WASHINGTON – With their Dec. 19 publication in the Federal Register, regulations that protect the conscience rights of health care providers are scheduled to become law two days before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

The regulations are designed to ensure “that Department of Health and Human Services funds do not support coercive or discriminatory policies or practices in violation of federal law,” according to the title of the final rule.

Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications in the Office of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, praised the regulations in a Dec. 18 statement.

“Individuals and institutions committed to healing should not be required to take the very human life that they are dedicated to protecting,” she said. “The enforcement of federal laws to protect their freedom of conscience is long overdue.”

The regulations support three conscience provisions passed by Congress as long ago as the 1970s and as recently as 2004. They stipulate that no federal funds be given to health care institutions that require providers to participate in abortions or sterilizations or discriminate against those who decline to participate because of their religious or moral beliefs.

The final rule notes that “religious and faith-based organizations have a long tradition of providing medical care in the United States, and they continue to do so today.”

“A trend that isolates and excludes some among various religious, cultural and/or ethnic groups from participating in the delivery of health care is especially troublesome when considering current and anticipated shortages of health care professionals in many medical disciplines and regions of the country,” it added.

Ms. McQuade said that “Catholic health care providers will especially welcome this mark of respect for the excellent life-affirming care they provide to all in need.”

But she added that Catholics are not the only ones who oppose “the deliberate destruction of nascent human life.”

“All health care providers should be free to serve their patients without violating their most deeply held moral and religious convictions in support of life,” Ms. McQuade said.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America is organizing opposition to the rule, saying it threatens patients’ rights and would restrict health care access.

“We look forward to working with President-elect Obama and leaders in Congress to repeal this disastrous rule and expand patients’ access to full health care information and services – not limit it,” said Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood president, in a Dec. 18 statement.

Meanwhile, in another conscience-related decision, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Dec. 18 that individual pharmacists and pharmacy owners have legal standing to challenge Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s 2005 emergency order requiring them to dispense the emergency contraceptive marketed as Plan B or leave the profession. Two lower courts had held that they did not have standing.

Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, called the decision “a huge victory for the freedom of conscience of all health care providers.”

“Pharmacists now have proper recourse against a discriminatory law that would force them to check their constitutional rights at the workplace door,” she said in a statement.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.