HHS: Doctors can refuse abortions

A new proposal defends "health care provider conscience."

Published August 21, 2008 9:50PM (EDT)

Well, what do you know? Today, the Department of Health and Human Services finally filed its proposal in defense of "health care provider conscience." An early draft leaked to the public redefined the most common forms of birth control as abortion, and rightly sparked a contraceptive conflagration. However, the rule proposed Thursday (PDF) does not attempt to explicitly recast abortion, nor does it defend medical workers' right to refuse to distribute birth control.

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt explained, "We did not feel it necessary to define abortion. This regulation relies upon existing statutes and existing court decisions as to the meaning of the word 'abortion.'" Instead, the proposal protects a medical worker's right to refuse to assist in the performance of abortions and sterilization.

I'll admit it: I'm feeling relieved after reading the final proposal. But that's only because the early draft rule forced us to walk right up to the edge of the repro-rights precipice and consider the fall. In truth, though, the proposal -- not to mention the process by which certain religious and moral objections are deemed legitimate and defensible -- is still problematic. For instance, it goes far beyond defending a medical worker's right to refuse to perform an abortion -- it also secures his or her right to refuse to "refer for, or make other arrangements for, abortions." In other words, a worker at a women's clinic, perhaps the only one for several hundred miles, can refuse to perform an abortion and refuse to refer the patient to someone who will.

I'll leave the last word to Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who said Thursday in a press release:

Planned Parenthood continues to be concerned that the Bush administration's proposed regulation poses a serious threat to women's health care by limiting the rights of patients to receive complete and accurate health information and services. At a time when more and more families are uninsured and under economic assault, we find our health care system is in crisis and our president taking steps to deny access to basic care. Women's ability to manage their own health care is at risk of being compromised by politics and ideology.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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