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October 1, 2008


The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recently proposed expanding protections for health care workers' religious beliefs by enacting new "provider conscience" regulations.

Under the new proposal, ‘‘no individual shall be required to perform or assist in the performance of any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare [Secretary of Health and Human Services] if his performance or assistance in the performance of such part of such program or activity would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.’’

Under the original HHS regulations, most of which were adopted in the 70's, the concern was to protect health care workers from being forced to participate in abortions or risk being fired. This new proposal doesn't keep such a narrow focus.

Because of its very broad scope it would, instead, allow any health care worker (from doctors and nurses to assistants and janitors) or health care institution (from mega hospitals to community free clinics) to refuse medical help and/or proceedures to anyone if that worker/institution deems that person to be "contrary to his (their) religious beliefs or moral convictions.’’

Jennifer C. Pizer, Lambda Legal senior counsel said in a statement, "Existing law already protects workers against religious discrimination. The law requires 'reasonable accommodation' of religious beliefs -- and that's a fair approach because religious freedom matters a lot. But the changes that HHS proposes are so broad, vague, and confusing that they risk inviting health workers with antigay beliefs to refuse treatment and otherwise to discriminate against very vulnerable patients."

This proposal would not only open the door for blanket discrimination against gays, it would also, according to 13 state attorney generals, limit access to abortion and birth control for victims of sexual assault. In spite of these concerns, HHS secretary Michael O. Leavitt is intent on putting this new expansion into effect.

It seems that the Bush administration's bureaucrats are trying to rush through a multitude of damaging administrative changes across the board before they're all kicked out of office.

Resources for this article were: The Advocate and Health Industry Washington Watch