Anti-reproductive health ‘conscience clause’ inches closer to reality

A controversial 11th-hour Bush administration regulation that would allow health care providers to refuse to provide reproductive health services, referrals or advice based on religious or undefined “moral” grounds moved another step forward Thursday. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, fired off a scathing statement accusing the White House of pursing “extreme ideology over sound public health policies.”

Despite sharp criticism from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, health care providers, members of Congress and over 200,000 public comments, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services yesterday published the proposed regulation in the Federal Register, a perfunctory move required in the rule changing process.

As RH Reality Check notes, there are a number of serious scientific, medical and fiscal concerns with the HHS rule that could thwart women from obtaining comprehensive reproductive health services:

An early, leaked draft version of the regulation specifically suggested that providers who consider hormonal birth control to be an abortifacient should not have to prescribe it or refer patients for its prescription. The regulation relied on arcane, non-medical definitions of pregnancy to suggest that the belief that pregnancy begins at fertilization is valid and that, a hormonal contraceptive, which anti-choicers claim blocks implantation of a fertilized egg, is tantamount to abortion. The second, released draft, now published, does not conflate contraception with abortion, but in its broad scope nonetheless provides protections for providers who would like to do just that. “The regulation confirms what we feared,” says Marilyn Keefe of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “HHS refused to allay any of the concerns raised in earlier iterations. Contraception clearly remains a target.”

An additional provision of the new rule will open federal Title X funding to providers who refuse to advise pregnant women on the availability of abortion. Currently, health care workers must offer patients information on all medical options. The broad language in the rule has been criticized that it could also apply to prescriptions, contraception, stem cell research, in vitro fertilization and other medical procedures.

DeGette, who introduced a congressional block of the HHS rule, called out the Bush administration: “This dangerous and misguided rule would restrict access to vital health services and create chaos for health care providers.” On the Rachel Maddow Show, the Denver congresswoman said she and co-sponsor Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York pulled the bill, fully expecting that it would be vetoed by President Bush. She said the bill would be reintroduced in the 111th Congress prior to the rule’s enactment.

The timing of the Dec. 18 public notice of the rule change is especially galling to opponents. It just barely meets the 30-day threshold for new or modified regulations, meaning it will become effective two days before President-elect Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

However, the incoming Obama Transition Team is already exploring ways to rescind a host of midnight regulations, including the new HHS rule, pushed through in the final days of the Bush presidency, according to the Wall Street Journal. reports that HHS officials claim the 127-page regulation to protect health care providers of faith from violating their conscience will cost taxpayers $44 million to implement.

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Wendy Norris

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