Public Comments On Patient Rights vs. Provider Conscience

Amie Newman

There are only 13 days left to comment on the HHS regulations that allow physician's to opt out of providing services like contraception and family planning to which they object - even if it's in the best interest of the patient.

As we’ve been reporting and encouraging action on for a few weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services leaked proposal to create regulations that mimic two federal amendments – the Church and Weldon Amendments – that allow health care providers (both individuals and institutions) that receive federal grants to "opt out" of care that they reject to on religious or moral grounds, even to the detriment of a patient’s health, is now in a period of public comment. 

For a reminder, these proposed regulations (PDF) seem to have arisen from a declaration on Secretary Leavitt’s part that an overwhelming number of physicians are being coerced into providing health care services, most notably abortion (and, yet, oddly sterilization is mentioned as well – last time I checked it was women who were being coerced into sterilization procedures?), to which they object.

Despite the fact that said providers are already covered under federal amendments, and despite the fact that no one has unearthed evidence that proves providers are being forced to provide abortions under duress, Secretary Leavitt has deemed this such a crucial issue that public health regulations be pushed through just months before the Bush administration’s final good-bye. 

To make matters worse, the proposed regulations allow health care providers to opt out of any service they may find objectionable – even contraceptive and family planning services. This kind of a regulation would have a very real, extremely severe impact on women’s lives.  98% of women will use birth control at some point in their lives.

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As Jessica Arons writes, health care providers may, "…be able to deny women access
to oral contraceptives, emergency contraception, and the IUD, among
other commonly used methods of birth control." 

One of the most troubling sections of the regulation document notes that:

Entities to whom this subsection 88.4(d) applies shall
not require any individual to perform or assist in the performance of
any part of a health service program or research activity funded by the Department if such service or activity would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions. 

The ACLU has been encouraging public comment on this since commenting officially began (see their call-to-action on the Rewire homepage). Louise Melling, head of the ACLU, posted on Shakesville today with a reminder that there are only 13 days left if you want to register your comment on the HHS web site.

Rachel Walden, at Women’s Health News, reports that there are over 1100 comments posted so far. Including this one:

I strongly oppose and urge you to abandon the Provider Conscience Regulation. As written, the proposed regulations could allow institutions and individuals to refuse to provide needed care based on religious beliefs. These rules could significantly undermine the ability of American women to access contraceptive services and deprive them of the right to make their own informed health care decisions.

This kind of a regulation offers absolutely no protection for women who seek very real and needed reproductive and sexual health care. Secretary Leavitt has not been able to sufficiently explain to Americans why the proposed regulation offers no balance between the rights of women to access necessary health care services from providers and the rights of providers not to perform a procedure or prescribe medication they oppose. 

Comment now!

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