Obama promises “robust” conscience clause exemption for health care workers

by on July 3, 2009  •  In Religion, Reproductive rights

Both the Washington Post and the Catholic News Service are reporting that President Obama assured a group of religion writers that he would insist on strong conscience clause exemptions for health care workers who object to certain medical procedures. Shortly before the end of the Bush administration, HHS issued new regulations that would prevent any HCW or hospital from being required to perform an abortion or other procedure to which they had a moral objection. The ACLU filed a lawsuit to stop the regulations from taking effect. Obama withdrew them, but is now promising that his administration's version will also be "robust," although only in the sense that it will be equivalent in strength to the status quo prior to the Bush regs. Especially given the attention being paid to religious exemptions in the same-sex marriage context, I think it's going to be important to watch how the new administration conceptualizes the trade-offs between rights in framing the terms of an exemption.

Here's the more detailed Catholic News Service report:

President Barack Obama told a round table of religion writers July 2 that he continues to be profoundly influenced by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, whom he came to know when he was a community organizer in a project partially funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Obama said his encounters with the cardinal continue to influence him, particularly his "seamless garment" approach to a multitude of social justice issues. He also told the group of eight reporters to expect a conscience clause protection for health care workers currently under review by the administration that will be no less protective than what existed previously….

The president [said]  that he expects an ongoing review of conscience clause regulations will result in a continuation of protections that have long existed, allowing people who are morally opposed to abortion or contraceptives to decline to provide them in the line of work without repercussions.

Obama said in some ways he sees his first meeting with the pope as the same as any contact with a head of state, "but obviously this is more than just that. The Catholic Church has such a profound influence worldwide and in our country, and the Holy Father is a thought leader and opinion leader on so many wide-ranging issues. His religious influence is one that extends beyond the Catholic Church."…

On conscience clauses, the president said he has consistently believed in them. As a state legislator, he said, he supported "a robust conscience clause in Illinois for Catholic hospitals and health care providers." Soon after he took office as president, the administration reversed what Obama described as "eleventh-hour change(s) in conscience clause provisions that were pushed forward by the previous administration."

According to Obama, the Bush administration change, which took effect two days before the new president was sworn in, hadn't been "properly reviewed and thought through, and he added that there were some concerns about how broad it might be and what its manifestations would be once implemented."

In general, that change codified longtime federal statutes that prohibit discrimination against health professionals who decline to participate in abortions or other medical procedures because of religious or moral objections.

In his speech at Notre Dame, Obama called for a "sensible conscience clause." and said he wished to "honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion."…

"We will be coming out with, I think, more specific guidelines," he said. "But I can assure all of your readers that when this review is complete there will be a robust conscience clause in place. It may not meet the criteria of every possible critic of our approach, but it certainly will not be weaker than what existed before the (Bush administration's) changes were made."…


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