Posted by: Dave Wilson | September 25, 2008

Health Care Rights: What Do Doctors Have to Do?

While so much of today’s attention is focused on the repercussions of the financial hurricane that is battering the economic coast of the United States, another storm is brewing for the conscience of American health care providers.

Last month the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced new regulations that would strengthen health care providers’ moral and religious rights to not perform certain medical services to which they conscientiously object.

In essence, this regulation says that the Feds can’t say to health care providers, “If you receive federal dollars for your services, we won’t pay you if you don’t perform or recommend certain services that you might not agree with – like abortions.”

Laws are already on the books at the federal level that protect against these types of discriminatory and coercive policies, but as HHS put it in their news release, “[This] proposed regulation would increase awareness of, and compliance with, three separate laws protecting federally funded health care providers’ right of conscience.”

Opponents of this regulation and abortion-supporting health care providers are quick to point fingers at, what they call, “a long line of cynical attempts by the Bush administration to distort science and medicine to fit its religious views and sabotage women’s access to reproductive healthcare.”

They quite adamantly claim that this regulation would, “strengthen physicians’ and other medical workers’ resolve to refuse to provide, mention, or make referrals for abortion, sterilization, and even contraception.”

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt refutes that saying, “This proposed regulation is about the legal right of a health care professional to practice according to their conscience…. Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience. Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a health care degree.”

Today is the final day for comment on this new regulation before HHS decides whether to put it into effect. Let regulators know where you stand on this issue by emailing or you can submit electronic comments directly to on the HHS regulations website.



  1. That might be fine if you live in New York City (or other progressive areas) where there are plenty of options and fairly easy transportation.

    However, what about the people in need of such services (birth control, Plan-B contraception, etc) who are stuck in an ultra-conservative area, where all (or most of) the doctors agree to not provide such services? They can no longer be sure that if they go to a local family doctor they can receive birth control advice. Will a truly desperate woman have to repeatedly make appointments with different doctors to find out if they’ll slip her a prescription, despite their office’s policies?

    What of the ancillary health providers, such as nurses? Do they get to choose to not assist a surgeon who’s sterilizing a woman? Can they assist with a surgical delivery, scrub out, and just leave?

    Do they get to decide this based on the person’s history? For instance, does a doctor get to decide on a whim, “this woman has only had one child, so I won’t sterilize her”? What of the doctor who’s scrubbed in and realizes (or, worse, misunderstands) that the abortion he’s about to perform is not due to rape or incest, and therefore crosses his conscience boundaries? If it was date-rape due to intoxication, can his nurse decide he/she won’t participate?

    Can a physician interview a woman who wants an abortion, agree to the services…. then change his mind after getting a call from her boyfriend, who claims that the woman’s lying?

    I’m just curious how far this will go.

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