The Obama administration plans to reverse a regulation from late in the Bush administration allowing health-care workers to refuse to provide services based on moral objections, an official said Friday.
The Provider Refusal Rule was proposed by the Bush White House in August and enacted on January 20, the day President Barack 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. “We recognize and understand that some providers have objections to providing abortions, according to an official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The official declined to be identified because the policy change had not been announced. “We want to ensure that current law protects them. “But 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.” Many health-care organizations, including the American Medical Association, believe health-care providers have an obligation to their patients to advise them of the options despite their own beliefs. Critics of the current rule argue there are already laws on the books protecting health-care professionals when it comes to refusing care for personal reasons. Dr. Suzanne T. Poppema, board chair 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 took the first steps today to ensure that our patients’ health is once again protected.” But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said, “Protecting the right of all health-care providers to make professional judgments based on moral convictions and ethical standards is foundational to federal law and is necessary to ensure that access to health care is not diminished, which will occur if health-care workers are forced out of their jobs because of their ethical stances. “President’s Obama’s intention to change the language of these protections would result in the government becoming the conscience and not the individual. It is a person’s right to exercise their moral judgment, not the government’s to decide it for them.” An announcement reversing the current rule is expected early next week, the HHS official said. Any final action would have to be taken after a 30-day public comment period.