HHS Secretary: OB/GYNs With Objections To Abortion Should Not Have To Refer Patients To Other Doctors

In November, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued new ethics guidelines. Members who have a moral objection to performing abortions are now required to refer their patients to another provider:

Physicians and other health care providers have the duty to refer patients in a timely manner to other providers if they do not feel they can in conscience provide the standard reproductive services that patients request. In resource-poor areas, access to safe and legal reproductive services should be maintained.

The Bush administration has now stepped in to block these guidelines. In a little-noticed letter on Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt wrote a letter to the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG), stating that providers with moral objections to abortion should have no obligation to refer patients:

I am writing to express my strong concern over recent actions that undermine the conscience and other individual rights of health care providers. […]

It appears that the interaction of the ABOG Bulletin with the ACOG ethics report would force physicians to violate their conscience by referring patients for abortions or taking other objectionable actions, or risk losing their board certification.

Leavitt is overly concerned with these physicians who may be forced to “violate their conscience,” but apparently not at all concerned for women who may be turned away from the only accessible health care service. ACOG never stated that board certification would be stripped from doctors who ignore these guidelines.


As OB/GYN Wendy Chavkin of Columbia University told NPR this morning, Leavitt’s policy may also allow physicians to deny a woman who has been raped emergency contraception. Listen here:


Yesterday, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice put out a statement supporting ACOG’s “principled and sensible policy,” which would “leave untouched a physician’s right to refuse to provide abortions — a right that has been spelled out in law since 1973 — but would ensure that the patient received the services she needed and wanted.”


On March 20, NPR reported that OB/GYNS who do not followed the guidelines will not lose their certification:

But Norman Gant, executive director of the certifying board, says HHS got it all wrong.

“They took two and two and came up with five,” he said.

Gant, who didn’t respond sooner because he was out of the office, backed up what ACOG spokesman Gregory Phillips said Tuesday, which is that the ethics committee opinion regarding referrals is not a binding portion of the college’s ethics code, and therefore not a factor in the decision about board certification.