'Right of conscience' rule issued for health workers
Conservatives lobbied Bush on safeguard
By Rob Stein
The Bush administration yesterday issued a sweeping new regulation that protects a broad range of healthcare workers - from doctors to janitors - who refuse to participate in providing services that they believe violate their personal, moral, or religious beliefs.
The controversial rule empowers federal health officials to cut off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, clinic, health plan, doctor's office or other entity if it does not accommodate employees who exercise their "right of conscience." It would apply to more than 584,000 healthcare facilities.
"Doctors and other healthcare providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said in a statement.
The regulation, which was issued just in time to take effect in the 30 days before the change of administrations, was sought by conservative groups, abortion opponents and others as necessary to safeguard workers from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways.
Women's health and family planning advocates, abortion-rights activists, members of Congress, and others criticized the regulation, saying it would create major obstacles to a variety of health services, including abortion, family planning, end-of-life care, and possibly a wide range of scientific research.
The 127-page rule is the latest in a flurry of federal regulations that the administration is implementing before President Bush's term ends, including a number that would weaken government protections for consumers and the environment.
Although the Obama administration could reverse the rule, it would require a lengthy process. Last month, however, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, and Senator Patty Murphy of Washington, both Democrats, introduced a bill to repeal the regulation legislatively.
In response to criticism that the original version of the rule was too broad, the final rule clarifies that it does not apply to entities that are unlikely to use federal funds for health services or research, such as programs that provide financial assistance for home heating for low-income families. But the rule continues to cover a broad range of workers, including support staff, trainees, and even volunteers.
"Many healthcare providers routinely face pressure to change their medical practice - often in direct opposition to their personal convictions," said Joxel Garcia, assistant secretary of health.