HHS Replaces 'Conscience' Rule for Health Workers

February 18, 2011 - 4:51 PM

Washington (AP) - The government has replaced a Bush-era rule that became a flash point in the debate over abortions, clarifying that doctors and nurses have a long-standing federal right not to participate in the procedures.

Federal laws for years have forbidden discrimination against health care professionals who refuse to perform abortions or sterilizations, or to provide referrals for them on religious or moral grounds.

The regulation, instituted in the last days of the Bush administration, was supposed to strengthen those protections by adding a requirement that institutions that receive federal money certify their compliance with the so-called conscience laws, so that money could be cut off if the law wasn't being followed.

That regulation was quickly challenged in federal court by several states and medical organizations, in part over concern that its overly broad wording also could be used to refuse birth control, family planning services and a variety of other services.

The Obama administration announced a year ago that it planned to repeal the regulation, and it did so on Friday after months spent reviewing 300,000 comments from the public on both sides.

In its place is a new rule that retains just the federal conscience protections for abortions and sterilizations, along with a provision that spells out how health workers who feel they were discriminated against can ask the government to enforce that law.

"Strong conscience laws make it clear that health care providers cannot be compelled to perform or assist in an abortion," said a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services. "The rule being issued today builds on these laws by providing a clear enforcement process."