Political Diagnosis, Part II: Undoing Bush's Provider Conscience Rule

By Christine Cupaiuolo — February 28, 2009

As expected, President Obama is moving to rescind the “provider conscience rule” issued during the last days of the Bush administration.

The Department of Health and Human Services is expected to start the process next week and will call for a 30-day public comment period. Last time around there were 200,000 commments filed against it.

In a front-page story published today in the Washington Post, Rob Stein writes:

The debate centers on a Bush administration regulation, enacted in December, that cuts off federal funding for thousands of state and local governments, hospitals, health plans, clinics and other entities if they do not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists or other employees who refuse to participate in care they feel violates their personal, moral or religious beliefs.

The rule was sought by conservative groups that argued that workers were increasingly being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways for trying to exercise their “right of conscience.”

Women’s health advocates, family-planning proponents, abortion rights activists and others condemned the regulation, saying it created a major obstacle to providing many health services, including family planning and infertility treatment, and possibly a wide range of scientific research. After reviewing the regulation, newly appointed officials at the Health and Human Services Department agreed.

The result could be a compromise, administration officials told the Post. If so, it would be interesting to see exactly how that gets worded. We already have a working system in place: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on religion (the courts have defined religion quite broadly over the years to include moral beliefs). Last year, three officials from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — including its legal counsel, who was appointed by President Bush — said the HHS rule was unnecessary.

When the news broke on Friday, MSNBC kept referring to it as the “abortion rule,” though it affects all aspects of family planning and a wide range of healthcare options, including end-of-life care, blood transfusions and mental health counseling.

Describing it just in terms of abortion is a real disservice for viewers who may not understand how this affects both men and women, young and old. Or that opposition comes from not only from abortion-rights groups, but also the American Medical Association, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, and the American Hospital Association, among other groups.

Meanwhile, David Stout at The New York Times wrote that the shorthand used to describe the rule reflects divided attitudes: “Supporters called it the ‘provider conscience regulation,’ while the Planned Parenthood Federation of America disdained it as a ‘midnight regulation.'”

Come on; any rule that’s issued almost two months after final regulations are supposed to be in — and less than one month before a new president takes office — is a midnight regulation.

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