Bush Administration’s Parting Gift

Working to ensure its anti-choice legacy, the Bush administration has proposed Health and Human Services regulations that could dramatically expand the legal right of health care providers, both institutions and individuals, to refuse to provide patients with services, information and referrals specifically regarding health care. The first draft of the measure defined contraception as abortion. The present version does not equate contraception with abortion, but it leaves open that possibility by failing to define key terms, including the words discrimination and abortion. (The devil is in the detail!)

The proposed rule could interfere with the enforcement of a myriad of health laws enacted to protect women, including laws that require health care providers to treat patients in need of emergency care. The rule could have a devastating impact on New York State. Although the State has been at the forefront of efforts to protect women’s access to contraception, the proposed regulation could jeopardize its ability to enforce laws such as requiring Emergency Contraception to be offered to sexual assault survivors in the Emergency Room law as well as enforcing its contraceptive equity law.

Federal and state law has traditionally balanced protections for individuals’ religious beliefs with patients’ need to access health care services. The proposed regulation seems designed to upset that careful balance and place the religious beliefs of medical institutions and professionals above the medical needs of patients.

Comments on the proposed rule are due by September 25 and a final regulation may be issued as soon as late October.

Please write to consciencecomment@hhs.gov, with the subject line Provider Conscience Regulation and advise as many of your friends and family members to do the same. Below is a sample letter which you can customize for your use!

I am writing to urge you to stop efforts to block women’s access to basic reproductive health services. I understand that the proposed regulations that the Department of Health and Human Services released on August 21, 2008 expand existing law to allow more health care providers and institutions to refuse to provide needed care.

As written, the regulations could allow institutions and individuals — based on religious beliefs — to permit individuals to refuse to provide basic health care services, information and counseling. Moreover, they expand existing laws by permitting a wider range of health care professionals to refuse to provide even referrals for abortion services.

For years, federal law has carefully balanced protections for individual religious liberty and patients’ access to reproductive health care. The proposed regulations appear to take patients’ health needs out of the equation. I urge you to restore this important balance and protect access to basic care for the millions of Americans who depend on federally funded health care services.

At a time when more and more Americans are either uninsured or struggling with the soaring costs of health care, the federal government should be expanding access to important health services, not undermining existing protections or interfering in programs that have successfully provided services for years.

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