HHS Proposal Pushes Religious View On Birth Control

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Abortion is still legal in this country, as is the purchase and use of birth control, but you wouldn't know that by looking at the new rule proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services that would apply to all private medical providers and researchers who receive HHS funds.

Under the proposed rule, in order to obtain grants and other funds from HHS, all public and private hospitals, clinics, medical schools and researchers would have to file "written certifications" promising that they would not refuse to hire nurses and other service providers who made it known that they objected to abortion and the provision of certain types of birth control to patients. Moreover, state and local governments would have to promise, in doling out grant monies, that they would not "discriminate" against hospitals, clinics and other medical providers that refused to provide abortion and birth control services.

Supposedly, the new rule is needed to make sure that government monies will not "support morally coercive or discriminatory practices or policies in violation of federal law," and funding could be cut off from providers who object to abortion and birth control because of their "religious beliefs or moral convictions."

However, in practice, that will mean that institutions and individuals that receive taxpayer funding to provide critical medical care to indigent patients, as well as to patients who live in rural areas with no choice of medical providers, will be able to refuse to provide medically necessary treatment simply because that treatment conflicts with their religious beliefs.

Specifically, the HHS proposal defines abortion as "any of the various procedures - including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action - that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation." The definition used to be simply, "the termination of a pregnancy after implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall."

However, under federal law, a "human being in utero" is better known as a "fetus," and fetuses can legally be terminated at least through the first trimester (three months) after conception. But the HHS rule would allow federal and state grant recipients to refuse to provide such terminations, and would even allow them to refuse to provide "morning after pills" as well as ordinary birth control pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs) which some religious groups claim function by causing spontaneous abortions. It would also, according to rhrealitycheck.org, "undermine laws that ensure pharmacies fill women's prescriptions for birth control"; allow health-care corporations (hospitals, HMOs, and health plans) to refuse to provide services or make referrals for both abortion and birth control services; and threaten laws in the 27 states that require health-care plans to cover contraception on an equal basis with other prescription medications.

As might be expected, conservative religious groups are overjoyed with the new proposal.

"Americans on all sides of controversial issues such as abortion, reproductive technologies and assisted suicide can appreciate the need to protect everyone's First Amendment rights of free speech and religious exercise," said Dr. David Stevens , the head of the 13,000-member Christian Medical Association. "That means that healthcare professionals must be free to follow their individual conscientious convictions on these life-and-death matters."

Indeed, the HHS proposal states, "Because the statutes that would be enforced through this regulation seek, in part, to protect individuals and institutions from suffering discrimination on the basis of conscience, the conscience of the individual or institution should be paramount in determining what constitutes abortion, within the bounds of reason." In other words, despite what the consensus of the medical community may be regarding the definition of abortion, the new regulation would allow any belief "within the bounds of reason" to be used to refuse both abortion and birth control services.

"Unless pro-life professionals are equipped to know and apply their conscience rights, they actually stand at risk of being weeded out from the profession altogether," Dr. Stevens claimed - but for practitioners receiving federal and states funds, that's exactly what should happen.

"If healthcare professionals are denied the right to live out their moral beliefs, patients will suffer the consequences," said Wendy Wright , president of the anti-choice group Concerned Women for America.

Indeed they will: Unwanted pregnancies; rape victims forced to carry their attackers' fetuses to term; millions of children born into poverty to mothers who never wanted a child in the first place - all because the Bush administration wants to use taxpayer funds to support fundamentalist religious beliefs!