In the final days of the Bush administration, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) adopted a “conscience rule” permitting federally funded health care providers to opt out of health care services they found objectionable. Then Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt argued that the new rule was necessary to protect the “freedom of expression and action” of medical professionals, even if its supposed beneficiaries disagreed. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, claimed that “doctors and nurses are already not required to perform abortions or sterilizations” and raised concerns about the rule’s vague definitions of “abortion” and the possibility that the redundant and unnecessary regulation could allow practitioners to deny women access to commonly used methods of birth control like “oral contraceptives, emergency contraception, and the IUD.”
President Obama condemned the rule and eventually reversed it. But yesterday, in an effort to strengthen his social conservative credentials and new-found pro-life position, Mitt Romney pledged to restore and strengthen the conscience protection:
Q: Would you restore them and perhaps even strengthen them?
ROMNEY: Absolutely. We have to allow people to practice their faith and when they have a matter of conscience that they can’t participate in some form of activity which violates their faith, then they should be able to abide by their faith, particularly when there are plenty of opportunities for people to have a service provided.
Under Bush, the additional conscience protection represented an ideological overreach, and it’s unclear why it would be any more necessary in 2012. In fact, during the rule’s open comment period, six medical associations issued a joint statement warning the Bush administration that expanding the existing standards would “effectively allow health care providers’ personal beliefs to override patients’ right to full disclosure of accurate information and available health care resources.” In a separate letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, 13 state attorneys generals also argued that “the rule was too vague about what health care procedures may be withheld.” “The proposed regulation completely obliterates the rights of patients to legal and medically necessary health care services in favor of a single-minded focus on protecting a health care provider’s right to claim a personal moral or religious belief,” they wrote.
But for Romney — and the social conservatives he hopes to please — conscience regulations are a means of limiting women’s access to reproductive services. They hope to muddy the waters and threaten both the diversity of beliefs in “our pluralistic society and the health and well-being of patients seeking care.”