HHS reproductive health ‘conscience clause’ pushback presses forward

Lawmakers and reproductive health advocates are in full court press to repeal an 11th-hour Bush Administration rule that threatens women’s health care set to go into effect Tuesday — hours before President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Democrats Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver and her upstate New York colleague Rep. Louise Slaughter have taken the lead in the U.S. House to block the controversial regulation that would allow health care workers to refuse to perform or assist in medical procedures they find religiously or morally objectionable, regardless of the patients’ needs. Twenty-three representatives have signed on as co-sponsors.

The proposed U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services rule is largely believed to serve as a back door tactic for social conservatives to make abortion, in vitro fertilization, contraception drugs and devices, and stem cell research more difficult to obtain by women patients.

On Jan. 15, the pair filed (H.R. 570), what a press release called the “Protecting Patients and Health Care Act,” to prohibit HHS from implementing the new “conscience clause” which has been roundly criticized as unnecessary and punative since current law already requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for health care workers’ religious beliefs.

A broader strategy to kill the new rule is being employed House Democrats via the Midnight Rule Act (H.R. 34) introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York. It will allow incoming cabinet secretaries “greater power to rewrite regulations issued during the final three months of the previous presidency,” writes the New York Times. Nadler’s bill is garnering interest from a motley crew of bankers, environmentalists and reproductive health advocacy groups seeking to roll back some of the more egregious 11th-hour rules pushed through by the outgoing Bush Administration.

Obama has also signaled his hostility to the last-minute regulations and has directed his transition team to explore potential executive branch repeal efforts.

Citizens opposed to the regulation also have an opportunity to get involved.

The National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association has launched a petition calling on lawmakers to repeal the HHS rule because of its significant impact on low-income and uninsured persons seeking family planning services from its member organizations of health departments, nonprofit clinics and health providers.

According to NFPRHA spokeswoman Allison Conyers, “We really want to show that there is support from the general public to stop the regulations to limit family planning services.”

During the public comment period on the proposed regulation last summer, more than 200,000 people lodged their opposition to the HHS rule.

Beliefnet.com 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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