The Obama administration’s threat to rescind a Department of Health and Human Services regulation guaranteeing conscience protections for health care workers and institutions has been met with disapproval by the U.S. bishops, the Catholic Medical Association and others.
One individual who is working to combat these threats to conscience rights of health care professionals who oppose abortion and sterilization is John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association and a parishioner of the Diocese of Sioux City.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on March 10 opened a 30-day period of public comment about the proposal to rescind the federal regulation that was made late in the Bush administration. Comments can be made through April 9.
“We think as many people as possible should comment to HHS and tell them to not do anything that would weaken respect for the conscience rights of physicians and other healthcare providers,” said Brehany, who has addressed this toapic on Ave Maria Radio and on EWTN.
The Web site of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops – USCCB – states: “The Catholic community must speak out to protect Catholic doctors, nurses and hospitals.”
The regulation implements and enforces three federal laws protecting the conscience rights of health care providers, especially those at risk of being discriminated against because of their moral or religious objection to abortion.
Brehany pointed out that 50 years ago no one would command a physician to participate in an abortion, to do a sterilization or anything that was against that doctor’s religious or conscience beliefs. But attempts to change that came after abortion became legal.
“In 1973, after Roe vs. Wade was decided, there were two cases in Montana in which people tried to force a Catholic hospital to participate in sterilizations. They said that the women needed the services and they were the only hospital (in the area) - so you must provide it,” explained Brehany.
It was a Democratic senator from Idaho, Frank Church, who introduced the Church Amendment that established the statute that no healthcare provider – individual or institution – could be forced to participate in an abortion or sterilization against their will. Additional protections were added to that law in the 1970s.
“What happened is that many people didn’t know these laws existed so when they were discriminated against or pressured, they didn’t know where to turn,” he said. “It’s not clear what you do if your rights have been violated.”
The conscience rights regulation was established by the Department of Health and Human Services in December of 2008, Brehany said, because of significant recent attacks made against physicians and healthcare providers.
He gave the example of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG). In 2007, an ethics committee of the ACOG issued an opinion stating it was unethical to not refer patients for abortions and in some situations, such as in emergencies where a woman’s physical or mental health might be impaired, physicians must perform an abortion even if it violates their consciences.
“One month later, OBOG issued maintenance of certification guidelines for 2008 and said that if a physician, an OB/GYN, breaks any ethical rule or principle of AGOG their certification could be withheld or withdrawn,” Brehany explained. “If they lose their certification, they can no longer admit patients to a hospital.”
May weaken rights
With the removal of the regulation that guarantees protection of conscience, he said they are “very afraid” attempts will be made to weaken respect for conscience. This line of thinking may pave the way to other things that go against the teachings of the Catholic Church such as the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA).
“The whole point of FOCA is to say that no one can interfere with or inhibit someone getting an abortion,” Brehany stressed. “Every law, rule or regulation that in any way interfered with or inhibited someone would be superseded.”
Dr. Paul Wolpert of Sioux City said abortion goes against the very nature of the Hippocratic Oath – to do no harm.
The “striking down” of the physician’s ability “to be able to follow his conscience is a revolutionary idea which goes against our historical practices as a free profession,” he said.
Along with physicians, the doctor said it could have implications for many others in the healthcare profession.
For instance, will nurses have the freedom not to participate in an abortion that has been ordered by a doctor?
In addition to physicians and healthcare institutions, Brehany said everyone who could be a patient should be “very concerned.” Many women do not want “to receive care from a physician who does abortions. But if theObama administration has its way, they will drive Catholic, Christian, pro-life physicians with ethical convictions about life out of the profession.”
Attorneys for the USCCB, stated in a March 23 Catholic News Service article, that faced with a lack of conscience protections, health care providers and institutions opposed to abortion or sterilization could be forced out of business, thus reducing access to all health care.
“Indeed, the poorest and neediest patients will suffer the most from such reduction in access to life-affirming health care,” they added.
To coerce the consciences of physicians and any healthcare provider or to tell them they must be involved in actions that destroy human life or they may lose their jobs, Brehany said, is a threat to healthcare.
“That’s bad for healthcare and is a threat to religious freedom in the United States,” he said.
And while much of the attention is presently on beginning of life issues, Brehany said they fear these same principles will be applied to end-of-life issues. As assisted suicide and euthanasia become legal in more states, these things may be viewed as legal services that cannot be denied by physicians or health institutions. Sioux City Catholic Globe
You may submit comments in one of four ways (no duplicates, please): 1. Electronically. You may submit electronic comments on this regulation to http://www.Regulations.gov or via e-mail to email@example.com. To submit electronic comments to http:// www.Regulations.gov, go to the Web site and click on the link Comment or Submission and enter the keywords provider conscience. (Attachments should be in Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or Excel; however, we prefer Microsoft Word.)
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Comments must be submitted by April 9, 2009.