Obama Administration Rescinds Bush Conscience Regulations

by Michael J. New

This past Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration has rescinded most of a federal regulation designed to protect health-care providers who refuse to provide care they find morally objectionable. Specifically, the regulation would have cut off federal funding to health-care providers that fail to accommodate employees who refuse to participate in care they feel violates their religious beliefs. Now, the only part of the regulation left intact is the conscience protection for doctors and nurses who do not want to directly perform surgical abortions or sterilizations.

This move is unsurprising. Many Democrats strongly opposed these regulations when President Bush put them in place in 2008. They claimed the regulations would make contraceptives less available by providing legal protection to federal employees and grant recipients with moral objections to contraceptive use. Shortly after President Obama took office, administration officials said they felt the regulation was too broad and announced plans to rescind it.

However, the timing is interesting. It is well known that supporters of legal abortion have had a rough few weeks: First Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell was charged with eight counts of murder for using scissors to kill babies delivered alive in his abortion mill; then Live Action Films released a series of undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood employees eagerly assisting a pimp seeking care for underage prostitutes — in some cases as young as 14. And on Friday, of course, the House voted 240–185 to cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

This decision to rescind the Bush-era conscience regulations might be an attempt by President Obama to shift focus from abortion to contraception as the effort to defund Planned Parenthood works its way through the Senate. This is a strategy that has been pushed by Cristina Page and a number of other pro-choice activists. Planned Parenthood’s supporters in the mainstream media have done something similar in response to the past few weeks’ bad publicity, emphasizing Planned Parenthood’s role in dispensing contraceptive to low-income earners.

Regardless, the administration’s decision is disappointing. In recent years, medical professionals have had to confront a wider range of sanctity-of-life issues, and conscience laws needed to be updated to reflect this. For instance, conscience laws protect health-care workers who do not wish to participate in surgical abortions, but pharmacists who do not wish to dispense abortifacients, which trigger early-term abortions, have little in the way of protection. The passage of Obamacare, which will increase the amount of federal control over the health-care industry, makes conscience protections even more important.

House Republicans have introduced several pieces of legislation containing provisions that would replicate many of the effects of these Bush era regulations, which is a welcome development, but right now Republicans should focus on Planned Parenthood funding, where they have more leverage — for Planned Parenthood to receive federal funding, a Republican-controlled Congress must first appropriate funds.

In addition to leverage, the Republicans have a strong case to make. Just last summer, a GAO audit could account for only $657.1 million out of $2.3 billion in federal funds that Planned Parenthood received between 2002 and 2009. Live Action’s undercover videos have shown a consistent and nationwide pattern of illegal activity — indeed, Planned Parenthood employees have appeared willing to ignore parental-involvement laws, have failed to report instances of statutory rape, and have refused to report sex trafficking of minors. Republicans should not allow their opponents to recast this debate as one about contraception — after all, Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest abortion provider. The Senate would do well to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. House and vote to defund Planned Parenthood.

Michael New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.