[JURIST] Thirteen state attorneys general urged the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) [official website] Wednesday to withdraw a proposed rule [PDF text] that they said could threaten women's access to abortion [JURIST news archive] and birth control. The Provider Conscience Regulation, published [HHS press release] last month, is intended to reinforce federal statutes [CRS backgrounder, PDF] protecting healthcare providers who refuse to take part in abortions or other healthcare services on moral or religious grounds. Specifically, the proposed rule would require certain recipients of HHS funds to certify compliance with the conscience requirements and would strengthen mechanisms for enforcing them. In their formal comments [press release and text] filed with HHS, the attorneys general wrote:
Health care institutions should not be penalized and stripped of vital federal funding for ensuring that victims of rape and other sexual assault are provided prompt and adequate birth control and other medically necessary health care services. Vagueness and broad application, together with the penalty of withdrawal of critical federal health care funding to a health care entity that violates – even inadvertently – the proposed regulation may have substantial and significant consequences for the provision of health care to many Americans.
The proposed regulation completely obliterates the rights of patients to legal and medically necessary health care services in favor of a single-minded focus on protecting a health care provider's right to claim a personal moral or religious belief. [sic]
Thursday marks the end of the public comment period for the proposed rule. Among the groups submitting comments in favor of the regulations was Americans United for Life [advocacy website], which stated [press release], "Protecting the rights of healthcare providers is critical to the continuing viability and safety of our healthcare system." AP has more.
Three federal statutes protect health care provider conscience rights. The Church Amendments [text], enacted in the 1970s, prohibit recipients of HHS funds from discriminating against individuals who refuse to perform or participate in activities that offend their moral or religious beliefs. A provision [text] added to the Public Health Service Act in 1996 prohibits discrimination against medical residents who object to being trained to perform abortions. The Weldon Amendments, part of HHS appropriations legislation [text] since 2005, prohibit government agencies from discriminating against health care entities that do not provide, pay for or give referrals for abortions. Last year, Illinois officials reached a settlement [JURIST report] with pharmacists who refused to dispense the so-called "morning-after" pill, requiring them to work with other pharmacists who would dispense the contraceptive. The pharmacists sued the state in 2005 after Gov. Rod Blagojevich implemented an emergency rule [press release] requiring pharmacists to dispense the contraceptive despite moral objections.