Examining the “Conscience Rule”

So what was George W. Bush doing during the last few weeks of his presidency? While the national spotlight was firmly fixed on President-elect Obama’s minute-by-minute movements – assembling a team, dealing with the crumbing economy, selecting the “first puppy” – it was Bush who still occupied the office.  And one of the last things he did was push through a piece of legislation referred to as the “conscience rule,” which took effect mere hours before Obama’s first day as President.

The rule essentially offers protection for healthcare workers who refuse to perform certain procedures due to their personal or religious beliefs, such as abortion, always a hot button issue.  Specifically, healthcare facilities that receive federal funding must certify that they do not discriminate against healthcare workers who raise moral or religious objections. Now that the White House has announced its intention to repeal the rule, the public has 30 days to comment before the administration acts.

Just to clarify, a federal conscience rule already existed, but this new rule strengthens and extends these protections – i.e. facilities that do not accommodate healthcare providers who refuse to perform abortions or pharmacies that refuse to dispense contraceptives, can now be charged with discrimination and lose their government funding.

This is an emotional issue. On the one hand, healthcare providers who object to performing certain procedures based on their religious beliefs, should not be forced to do so – their moral and religious beliefs ought to be protected. Advocates of the rule say that healthcare workers who refuse to perform abortions, for example, based on their religious beliefs are increasingly being discriminated against and that this additional protection is warranted.

On the other hand, what about the patients? The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly came out against the rule, arguing that women’s reproductive rights are under threat – there is a real danger that the rule will lead to more women being denied access to abortions or birth control. As it stands now, the rule is broadly written and many are concerned that healthcare workers can object to performing too wide a range of services, from family planning counseling to blood transfusions to issues that arise at the end of life.

For me, the conscience rules debate illustrates a key intersection in our Workplace and Healthcare programs – healthcare providers are like any other employees and their religious beliefs should be accommodated to the extent possible. But considering the field in which they work, accommodating providers’ religious beliefs should not come at the expense of the patient and cannot be justified if it negatively impacts healthcare delivery. The debate rages on.

Check out another Rachel’s blog for detailed information on how to comment on the “conscience rule.”

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