By Jeffrey Young - 12/18/08 05:30 PM EST
Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) pledged to do whatever it takes to undo a new regulation they say will limit women’s access to medical care.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) unveiled a regulation Thursday that the administration says will protect healthcare workers from being forced to take actions that go against their conscience.
"Doctors and other healthcare providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said.
To Clinton, Murray and a plethora of women’s groups and, the last-minute “conscience clause” rule is a parting shot against women’s rights to abortion and contraceptive services by the outgoing administration.
“It’s clear that the Bush administration’s assault on healthcare protections for women will continue up until their very last day in office. This is the kind of desperate, ideologically driven politics that helped convince Americans it’s time for change,” Murray said.
“This regulation threatens access to critical healthcare services and information, while upending the carefully crafted religious protections for patients and providers already in law,” said Clinton, who has been chosen by President-elect Obama to be secretary of state next year.
“Under the next administration and Congress, we will reverse this policy and ensure that the health of patients always comes first. I will work with President-elect Obama to explore every possible option to ensure women continue to have access to the healthcare they need,” Murray said.
Doing so could prove tricky and time-consuming.
The incoming Obama administration cannot simply cancel the regulation because, once it is published Friday, it will have the force of law on Jan. 18. Obama’s HHS could issue a new regulation to repeal or replace the Bush rule but that process typically takes at least six months.
Congress has several legislative methods of undoing regulations but votes on abortion issues are always heated.
Obama has been clear about his views on the regulation.
“This proposed regulation complicates, rather than clarifies the law. It raises troubling issues about access to basic health care for women, particularly access to contraceptives. We need to restore integrity to our public health programs, not create backdoor efforts to weaken them. I am committed to ensuring that the health and reproductive rights of women are protected,” Obama said in August.
Clinton and Murray met with Leavitt in September but were unable to change his position. After the meeting, 28 senators – including Obama, Clinton and Murray – expressed their opposition to the regulation in a letter to Leavitt. Clinton and Murray drafted legislation to block the rule but it was not considered before Congress recessed for the year.
To Leavitt, the regulation is needed to protect healthcare workers from workplace discrimination, or even firing, if they refuse to participate in medical services that violate their moral or religious beliefs.
Under the regulation, any medical facility found to inadequately protect workers’ rights to refuse to “participate in services to which they object” would lose federal funding.
The administration ignited a firestorm of protest from abortion-rights advocates and cheers of approval from anti-abortion-rights groups when it initially proposed the rule in July on the grounds that current law is not being properly enforced. Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards described the rule as “disastrous.”
The American Civil Liberties Union spoke out against the rule Thursday. “Contrary to existing federal law, today’s rule fails to carefully balance protections for individual religious liberty and patients’ access to reproductive healthcare,” said Vania Leveille, the group’s legislative counsel.
Many healthcare groups disagree with the rule. The American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and others have come out against it.
A federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also expressed its opposition.
Others, such as anti-abortion-rights groups and religiously affiliated hospitals, applauded the Bush administration for taking action.
“This is a huge victory for religious freedom and the First Amendment,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said. “No one should be forced to have an abortion and no one should be forced to be an abortionist,” he said.