Before officially announcing new regulations to protect “federally funded health care providers’ right of conscience” by allowing them to opt-out of providing abortion and contraceptive services, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Levitt argued that the new rule was necessary to protect the “freedom of expression and action” of medical professionals:
I want to reiterate. If the Department of Health and Human Services issues a regulation on this matter, it will aim at one thing, protecting the right of conscience of those who practice medicine. From what I’ve read the last few days, there’s a serious need for it.
But Leavitt’s claim is sensationalistic. On his own blog and in the press release announcing the regulation, Levitt undermines the necessity of the regulation by admitting that there are “clear provisions in three separate laws protecting federally-funded health care providers’ right of conscience.” These provisions already protect “freedom of expression”:
- The Church Amendment of 1976: “prevents the government (as a condition of a federal grant) from requiring health care providers or institutions to perform or assist in abortion or sterilization procedures against their moral or religious convictions. It also prevents institutions receiving certain federal funds from taking action against personnel because of their participation, nonparticipation or beliefs about abortion or sterilization.”
- The Coats Amendment of 1996: prohibits the government from “discriminating” against medical residency programs or other entities that lose accreditation because they fail to provide or require training in abortion services.
- Hyde/Weldon Conscience Protection Amendment of 2004: “forbids federal, state and local governments from requiring any individual or institutional provider or payer to perform, provide, refer for, or pay for an abortion. This goes well beyond the Church Amendment.”
Leavitt’s rule would be redundant if it weren’t so expansive. By using an “opinion put forth several months ago by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists” as pretext to issue new regulations, Leavitt is potentially expanding the existing conscience exemption. As Jessica Arons points out, by failing to provide a clear, medically-accepted definition of abortion and leaving the door open for refusers to self-define “abortion,” the new rules enable individuals to “deny women access to oral contraceptives, emergency contraception, and the IUD, among other commonly used methods of birth control.”
In short, the purpose of the regulation — which violates White House Chief of Staff’s Josh Bolten’s requirement that new regulations be proposed by June 1, 2008 — is to muddy the waters and allow opponents of abortion and contraceptive services to obstruct women’s access to reproductive health care.
UPDATE: On Friday, during an interview with NARAL’s Mary Alice Carr about the new regulation, Laura Ingraham falsely claimed that “pro life doctors who refuse to provide abortions may finally get some help from the federal government”: