Critics say that the newly proclaimed Right of Conscience rule due to be issued by the Bush administration allows more medical workers to refuse to participate in medical procedures that violate their consciences, going far beyond abortion.
Doctors and other medical workers, under the new rule, could choose to opt out of participating in procedures as wide-ranging as artificial insemination and even birth control.
The Planned Parenthood Foundation, the biggest provider of abortions, other pro-abortion groups and backers of abortion rights have condemned the rule and insist that it is a last-gasp effort by the Bush administration to please social conservatives, according to the Times.
Abortion-rights advocates insist that patients' rights must come first.
Judith Waxman, a lawyer for the National Women's Law Center, told the Los Angeles Times that "this goes way beyond abortion," and that such a rule could reach into areas like contraception, sperm donations and end-of-life care.
"This kind of rule could wreak havoc in a hospital if any employee can declare they are not willing to do certain parts of their job," she said.
Health and Human Services HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt has said he plans to issue the rule as a final regulation before the Obama administration takes office in order to protect the moral conscience of persons in the healthcare industry, according to the Times.
"Doctors and other healthcare providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience," Levitt wrote on the HHS Web site. "Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a healthcare degree."
The new ruling will allow hospitals and other medical facilities, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers to refuse to participate in any medical procedure that they view as morally objectionable such as abortion but not limited solely to that procedure
Federal law on the books for three decades already allows doctors and nurses the right to refuse to take part in abortions. Under the new ruling all healthcare workers will be allowed to refuse even to give information or advice to patients considering having an abortion.
Both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Hospital Association (AHA) have voiced objections to the new rule. According to an AHA letter "the definitions of 'health care service program' and 'health care service,' to which an individual can find a moral objection, are very broad and potentially impinge on a patient's access to needed health care services.”
The far-reaching proposed rule has the potential to interfere with every aspect of patient care, according to Anne Davis, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.
"A receptionist could refuse to schedule appointments, health insurance agents could refuse to process payments, and operating room staff could refuse to clean equipment based on their conscientious objection to certain medical procedures or services," Davis, medical director of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health., told the Web site MedPageToday.com
According to officials of the Department of Health and Human Services the rule would apply to "any entity" that receives federal funds. They estimated that as many as 4,800 hospitals, 234,000 doctor's offices and 58,000 pharmacies will be covered.
Supporters of the rule including the Christian Medical Association and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, insist that the rule is not limited to abortion but will protect doctors who do not wish to prescribe birth control or to provide artificial insemination, Dr. David Stevens, president of CMA told the Times.
"The real battle line is the morning-after pill," he said. "This prevents the embryo from implanting. This involves moral complicity. Doctors should not be required to dispense a medication they have a moral objection to."
How President Obama will respond to the rule once in office is unknown but during the campaign he said there is a "moral dimension to abortion" that cannot be ignored, but he also promised to protect the rights of women who want to have an abortion.
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