Christian doctors’ group protests rolling back ‘conscience’ rule

The rule protects the rights of health care providers who refuse to participate in certain procedures.
An organization of Christian physicians argued Wednesday against an impending rollback of a federal rule allowing health care workers to refuse to provide certain reproductive services, saying it’s discriminatory.

The Bush White House proposed the rule in August, and it was enacted January 20, the day President Obama took office. It expanded on a 30-year-old law establishing a “conscience clause” for health care professionals who don’t want to perform abortions. Under the rule, workers in health care settings — from doctors to janitors — can refuse to provide services, information or advice to patients on subjects such as contraception, family planning, blood transfusions and even vaccine counseling if they are morally against it. The Obama administration is expected to reverse the rule shortly, touching off a new wave of heated debate over what remains one of the most sensitive and emotional hot-button issues in American politics. ” ‘Right of conscience’ is under attack, and that is dangerous for our country, our health care system and our patients,” said Dr. David Stevens, head of the 15,000-member Christian Medical Association. “When the state demands that we surrender our conscience, it becomes totalitarian and dangerous. Do we want our professional schools to ethically neuter doctors of all moral convictions that are not approved by the government” Watch CNN’s Sanjay Gupta discuss the ‘conscience clause’ » Stevens was speaking on behalf of Freedom to Care, an umbrella organization of 36 groups working to prevent a rollback of the rule. Many health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, believe that health care providers have an obligation to their patients to advise them of the options despite their own beliefs. And critics of the current rule argue that there are laws on the books protecting health-care professionals when it comes to refusing care for personal reasons.

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“We don’t make God-like decisions. … That’s not what it’s about for us. It’s about helping the patient make their own decision. … No one appointed us to be the ultimate person to pass judgment,” said Mary Jean Schumann, a member of the American Nurses Association. Dr. Suzanne T. Poppema, board chairwoman of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, praised Obama “for placing good health care above ideological demands.” “Physicians across the country were outraged when the Bush administration, in its final days, limited women’s access to reproductive health care,” she said. “Hundreds of doctors protested these midnight regulations and urged President Obama to repeal them quickly. We are thrilled that President Obama [is taking steps] to ensure that our patients’ health is once again protected.” Stevens argued that there is “a well-funded and increasingly successful effort to discriminate against health care professionals based upon their deeply held religious and moral beliefs.” Rescinding the rule will send “a clear message,” he said: “It’s open season on health care professionals of conscience. Discriminate at will. If anyone should understand the ugliness of discrimination, it is our first African-American president.” Stevens predicted that a large number of specialists in obstetrics and gynecology would leave the medical profession if the rule is repealed.

A final announcement from the Obama administration is expected with the conclusion of a 30-day public comment period on the proposed rule change. “We do not want to impose new limitations on services that would allow providers to refuse to provide to women and their families services like family planning and contraception that would actually help prevent the need for an abortion in the first place,” a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official said in February.