Conscience clause deserves to live

President Barack Obama picked a fight with abortion opponents early last month when his administration published a proposal to rescind a Bush administration regulation codifying a conscience clause for medical providers who are opposed to abortion or other procedures.

Evidence of that fight was abundantly displayed in Grand Junction Monday when some 40 people gathered in front of St. Mary’s Hospital to protest the president’s proposal.

Their concerns are understandable. No doctor, hospital, pharmacist or other health-care providers should be forced to perform medical procedures or provide services that their religion forbids or that they find morally repugnant. This includes everything from providing abortions to offering morning-after pills and abortion
counseling.

However, Obama’s proposal won’t automatically threaten health-care providers with legal action or government sanctions if they refuse to offer such services and procedures.

There are already three federal laws on the books that contain conscience clauses for the health-care industry. Obama’s order wouldn’t overturn them or the conscience-clause law in Colorado’s state statutes.

President George W. Bush issued new federal regulations late in 2008 to strengthen the wording in the federal laws. Among other things, his regulations require a written agreement to follow the conscience laws and they give people better access to federal discrimination agencies if their rights were violated.

Liberal groups say the Bush rules went too far — conceivably making it easier for insurance companies to refuse to pay for abortions that may be medically necessary and making it more difficult for young women to have access to contraceptives.

Obama’s proposed rule change would only rescind the Bush regulations, not the federal laws already on the books. But many people fear that would just be the first step in an effort to eliminate the federal conscience clause altogether.

But eliminating the conscience clause from federal law would require a vicious congressional battle that many moderate Democrats would wish to avoid.

The president should re-examine the Bush rules and possibly make some modest changes — to ensure insurance companies can’t deny doctor-recommended treatment, for instance — but not rescind them.


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