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Published: Tuesday, 1/6/2009

Health-care mischief

PRESIDENT-elect Barack Obama has a lot of bad to remedy starting on Jan. 20, and he can thank the outgoing Bush Administration again for putting one more item on the to-undo list.

The latest parting shot came in the form of a new regulation from the Department of Health and Human Services that expands the rights of health-care workers to refuse to participate in procedures they find morally objectionable.

Current law long has allowed doctors and nurses to refuse to take part in abortions if their religious beliefs dictate, but this new so-called "conscience protection" will be extended to everyone involved in health care, including office receptionists and volunteers.

Abortion is the first procedure that comes to mind in this discussion, but it is not the only one by any means. A medical staff member who objected to the use of contraceptives could refuse to provide information to a patient; one who objects to homosexual relations could make it difficult for an individual to obtain a test for HIV or AIDS; a doctor who does not believe in in vitro fertilization could avoid advising a couple that the option might help them become parents.

Should a patient calling a doctor's office to inquire about options for contraceptives be required to engage in a debate with a staff member who believes any interference with fertilization is a moral affront? We think not.

Under the cloak of protecting the religious sensibilities of health-care workers, the new regulation potentially violates the rights of patients to appropriate and complete medical information.

Until now, clinics that receive federal funding have been required to advise pregnant women of all options, including carrying a baby to term, adoption, and abortion. Under the revision, clinics that have no intention of doing so nonetheless may apply for taxpayer support. Like it or not, a woman's right to choose remains protected under the law of the land.

Also problematic is the vague language in the regulation, which has left clinic operators wondering whether it means they won't be able to ask potential employees about their views in order to ascertain whether they would perform their work in concert with the organization's views and objectives.

The rule is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 19, the day before Inauguration Day, but the incoming Obama administration can suspend implementation.

Then, after the new president takes over, Tom Daschle, his nominee for secretary of health and human services, could restart the rule-making procedure and undo the Bush Administration's intention.

That seems the quickest way to offset the harm that this misguided regulation would accomplish.



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