Seven States Sue Over Health Worker "Conscience" Rule

Seven state attorneys general, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU have sued to overturn the so-called “conscience” rule, which allows doctors, pharmacists, and other health care workers to refuse to perform procedures or dispense medication that conflicts with their beliefs.

Under the new regulation, federal officials can “cut off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, health plan, clinic or other entity that does not abide by existing federal laws requiring them to accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other employees who refuse to participate in any care they consider objectionable on ethical, moral or religious grounds.”

The rule, issued by President Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services last month, is set to take effect the day before Barack Obama is sworn in (such “midnight regulations” have been common for outgoing presidents, particularly this one).

Although we think it’s kind of silly to enter a profession knowing that part of your responsibilities entail doing things you’re morally opposed to, we agree that it’s a private business’s right to refuse to dispense birth control or emergency contraception—and we look forward to not shopping there.

But as this rule only applies to federally funded health care providers, it raises two interesting questions: does allowing federally funded hospitals and pharmacies to fire or otherwise punish a health care professional who refuses to perform a procedure for conscience reasons violate that person’s First Amendment rights, as HHS suggests? On the other hand, since birth control, abortion, and emergency contraception are all legal, does allowing a federally funded health care professional to refuse to provide these services to, let’s say, a poor woman who relies on federally funded clinics, violate that woman’s due process rights? We also worry about the potential for convenient bouts of conscience that only manifest themselves when minority women want birth control, or gay couples, or so on.

In any case, President-elect Obama has signaled that he intends to overturn the rule, although reversing a rulemaking would take months.

Lawsuits Filed Over Rule That Lets Health Workers Deny Care [WaPo}
Ensuring That Department of Health and Human Services Funds Do Not Support Coercive or Discriminatory Policies or Practices in Violation of Federal Law [HHS]
Editorial: A Parting Shot at Women’s Rights [NYT]
(Photo: catheroo)