Last week, the Obama administration did something that didn’t capture much media attention but should have: It officially overturned a bad policy from the Bush years and issued a series of final regulations dealing with health care and the right of “conscience.”
A little background: In December of 2008, the lame-duck Bush administration issued a sweeping series of regulations giving health-care workers a right to refuse to take part in any procedure that they say violates their religious beliefs. The astonishingly broad and far-sweeping reach of the regulations extended beyond reproductive health care, such as sterilization and abortion, to cover areas such as end-of-life directives, care of patients with HIV, and even use of psychiatric medicines.
At the time, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn observed in a press release, “This regulation was a parting gift from President Bush to the Religious Right, and it ought to be returned to sender. The last thing this country needs is more Religious Right meddling in our health care.”
Early in his administration, Obama proposed rescinding the rules. It took a while, but the new regulations have finally been published by the Department of Health and Human Services. They are a vast improvement over the Bush approach.
The website RH Reality Check, which monitors news about reproductive issues, points out two things about the new regs: “One is that the administration in no uncertain terms clarifies that providers may not refuse to treat persons even if ‘lifestyle,’ ‘sexual orientation,’ or other considerations offend their consciences. The second is that the administration makes explicit that contraception cannot be equated with abortion and therefore providing contraception is not covered by conscience provisions.”
These are important changes. Americans United recognizes that some conscience-based rights in health care are necessary, but the Bush administration, prodded by the Religious Right, had gone way too far. The new regulations provide much-needed balance.
At the same time, the recently released regulations should serve as a reminder to Americans that health care issues remain an intense area of interest to the Religious Right and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Recent headlines bear this out. An appalling effort by Congress to redefine rape and make it harder for victims of sexual assault to get abortions collapsed in the face of widespread public outrage, but the attack on reproductive services goes on.
The recent vote by the House of Representatives to defund Planned Parenthood is an example. By law, Planned Parenthood is not permitted to use federal funds to pay for abortions. It uses the funds to provide medical services for poor women, reproductive health care information to teenagers and so on. Yet the House bowed to the cultural warriors of the extreme right and voted to yank the funding.
The theocrats of the far right have long obsessed over the most intimate matters of Americans’ lives. Their constant meddling in private matters like sex and reproductive health care is tiresome – but we ignore it at our peril. If we’re not careful, our rights could be lost.
The new HHS regulations are a welcome rebuff to yet another effort by the Religious Right to impose its moralistic agenda on all of us. But not every overture by the extreme right will be so easy to deal with.
Stay alert. The neo-Puritans continue to stalk the land, and they are, unfortunately, aided and abetted by many allies in Congress.