Washington DC,(CNA).- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Thursday issued a final regulation explicitly clarifying the rights of health care providers to decline participation in services to which they object in conscience. The rule will help protect those individuals and institutions in the medical field who object to abortion.
An HHS press release reported that several statutes have been enacted by Congress to "safeguard the freedom of health care providers to practice according to their conscience."
"The new regulation will increase awareness of and compliance with these laws," it continued.
"Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said. "This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience."
"Many health care providers routinely face pressure to change their medical practice – often in direct opposition to their personal convictions," said HHS Assistant Secretary of Health, Admiral Joxel Garcia, M.D. "During my practice as an OB-GYN, I witnessed this first-hand. Health care providers shouldn’t have to check their consciences at the hospital door."
According to the HHS press release, the final rule clarifies that non-discrimination protections apply to institutional health care providers as well as individuals who work for recipients of HHS funds. Under the rule recipients of certain HHS funds will be required to certify their compliance with conscience protection laws.
The HHS Office for Civil Rights has been designated as the entity to receive violation complaints. If a state or local government or entity is in violation of the statutes, HHS officials may assist them in becoming compliant. If such efforts fail, the entity may be penalized by termination of funding and may be required to return funding already received.
The HHS also encourages providers to disclose to patients what services they do not provide.
Describing remarks received concerning the proposal, the HHS press release said "the comments consistently bore out the necessity of the regulation to implement the statutes enacted by Congress."
"Many commenters exhibited a lack of understanding of these laws. Others articulated a general knowledge that conscience protections exist for providers, but the scope of these protections was not always widely understood. Still other comments came from health care workers relating personal experiences of what they perceived to be discrimination on the basis of their personal or religious beliefs."
Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the 16,000-member Christian Medical Association (CMA), on Thursday welcomed the regulation, saying it will "protect patients and patient access to physicians who adhere to life-affirming ethical standards."
"By protecting physicians and other healthcare professionals who still adhere to the Hippocratic Oath, the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and other objective standards of medical ethics, this regulation serves to protect patients who want access to conscientious and compassionate care from life-affirming physicians," he continued, adding "this regulation insures that physicians and others won’t be run out of the profession for upholding those standards."
According to Dr. Stevens, only 38 percent of Americans realize that physicians may not legally be coerced into performing or referring for abortions. He also reported that 41 percent of CMA members who responded to a survey reported being "pressured to compromise Biblical or ethical convictions."
"Physicians report being forced out of medical positions, residents report loss of training privileges, and students report discrimination in medical school admissions," he stated. "Medical students have been reporting to us that they are deciding not to pursue careers in obstetrics and gynecology for fear of coercion to do abortions."
The rule is opposed by many abortion rights groups and also by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association. Sources close to President-elect Obama’s transition team told the Wall Street Journal the Obama administration will try to change the rule through the HHS regulatory process.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals, both support the new rule. They say it is needed to protect health care providers from being forced to perform sterilizations and abortions.