April 2009 Church & State | People & Events

In late February, the administration took the first step toward rescinding a Bush order that grants health care workers a broadly based “conscience” right to refuse to perform certain tasks or distribute certain medications.

Bush had put the rule in place during the waning days of his presidency. While the move pleased the Religious Right, it angered many medical professionals, patients’ rights advocates and civil liberties activists, who argued that it went too far.

The Obama administration announced its plans to alter the regulation through a sparsely worded posting on a government Web site. Religious Right groups reacted quickly and began attacking the administration.

“It is open season to again discriminate against health care professionals,” David Stevens, chief executive officer of the Christian Medical and Dental Association, told The Washington Post. “Our Founding Fathers, who bled and died to guarantee our religious freedom, are turning over in their graves.”

But an official with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), speaking anonymously, told The Post the Bush-era regulations infringed on patients’ rights.

“We’ve been concerned that the way the Bush rule is written, it could make it harder for women to get the care they need,” said the official. “It is worded so vaguely that some have argued it could limit family-planning counseling and even potentially blood transfusions and end-of-life care.”

The HHS official added that the Obama administration will push for a new rule that preserves some conscience-based objections. For example, no medical professional will be required to take part in an abortion. But objections to distributing birth control may no longer be honored.

Americans United opposed the Bush regulations and submitted public comments against them last year. The organization will continue monitoring the situation as the new regulations unfold.

On March 9, Obama issued an executive order lifting restrictions on federal funding of stem-cell research, again reversing a Bush order and angering the Religious Right.

Bush, who said he opposed stem-cell research on moral grounds, limited researchers to 21 stem-cell “lines” that had already been created. Obama’s move is expected to open up hundreds of more lines for federal research and funding.

“Scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions,” said Obama during the signing ceremony.

Added Obama, “As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”

Obama’s move was immediately attacked by the Vatican and an array of Religious Right groups. 

“President Obama’s executive order shows disrespect for the deeply held moral convictions of tens of millions of Americans by compelling taxpayers to fund this deadly experimentation,” charged Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. Perkins called on Congress to pass legislation banning such research.

The Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association issued an e-mail alert stating, “President Obama has given the ok to destroy human life in the name of scientific research.”