National Catholic Reporter

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Health regulation allows 'conscience' exceptions

WASHINGTON — A new federal regulation will allow healthcare workers to abstain from performing abortions or any service they object to on religious or moral grounds.

The regulation, introduced Thursday (Dec. 18) by the Department of Health and Human Services, is directed primarily at shielding those with religious or moral objections to abortion or sterilization. But its scope could be much wider, including those opposed to assisted suicide, sex change operations or even vaccinations and family planning.

The rule says healthcare workers cannot be discriminated against for refusing to participate in objectionable procedures. The definition of workers is defined broadly, to include volunteers as well as janitors and others not directly engaged in the procedures.

The regulation goes into effect in 30 days, just before the end of the Bush White House. It can be overturned by the incoming Obama administration, and some lawmakers are already taking steps to change it through legislation.

Healthcare service providers could lose federal funds for violating the rule, but HHS officials stress the department will assist entities that are deemed non-compliant before considering legal options.

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HHS officials said the 127-page regulation -- which will cost about $44 million to implement -- is designed to alleviate a trend of isolation and exclusion of people of faith from the healthcare industry.

"Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said. "This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience."

Liberal groups suggested the new regulation will undermine religious diversity, and place the doctors' views above the patients'.

"Using the guise of protecting the conscience of healthcare providers, this regulation ... denies women the right to follow their conscience and make decisions according to their religious and moral beliefs," said the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, in a statement.

It drew quick praise from religious conservatives, who had sought relief against being punished for not performing abortions.

"No one should be forced to have an abortion, and no one should be forced to be an abortionist," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in a statement. "These regulations will ensure that conscience protection statutes will be strongly enforced by the government in the same manner as our other civil rights laws."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also praised the regulation, saying that "Catholic health care providers will especially welcome this mark of respect for the excellent life-affirming care they provide to all in need."

The regulation cited concerns that healthcare workers might use religious or moral beliefs to mask objections to treating certain patients, including those with HIV and AIDS. The report disagreed with the hypothetical concerns, noting health care provider conscience protection provisions have been in place for decades, and Thursday's rule implements existing requirements.

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