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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No More ’Conscience Clause’ to Allow Docs to Deny Gays

By Killian Melloy -

Joe Pitts
Joe Pitts

A Bush-era law that allowed physicians to deny care to patients on moral grounds has been almost entirely undone by the Obama administration, the Washington Post reported on Feb. 18. But Congressional Republicans have vowed to restore the law’s provisions.

The law--known as a "conscience clause"--had been around for three decades before then-President George W. Bush expanded it. Under the expanded law’s provisions, doctors and other medical personnel could cite religious or moral beliefs in refusing to provide medical care and services, including care for gay men and HIV/AIDS patients.

The Post recounted that one health provider was covered by the law in refusing fertility treatment for a lesbian wishing to become a mother. In other instances, pharmacists refused service to women with prescriptions for contraceptives, and an ambulance worker refused to take a woman in need of an abortion to the hospital.

The measure has been pared back to a form much closer to its original scope. The conscience clause still allows medical providers to refuse abortion services or techniques that would render patients unable to reproduce.

Advocates for the law’s reform hailed the change. "We’ve had conscience protections on the books in some cases for more than 30 years," Health and Human Services counselor for health policy Rima Cohen told the Washington Post. "When the Bush administration put these rules out, they really contained overly broad language that was confusing to people. We didn’t think that was necessary."

But foes of the change asserted that religious healthcare providers would be made vulnerable to prosecution for remaining true to the tenets of their faith--or be forced to break with those convictions in the workplace, the article said.

"Any weakening of conscience protections opens the door that much further to discrimination against life-affirming health-care professionals and institutions," declared the Christian Medical Association’s Jonathan Imbody. "With many areas already facing critical shortages of professionals and institutions, this is no time to be risking the further loss of health-care access for poor patients."

Dr. J. Scott Ries, also with the Christian Medical Association, told anti-gay religious site OneNewsNow that the change would "weaken a foundational civil right that’s going to force doctors to either check their moral integrity at the door of their clinic or hospital--or leave medicine altogether."

Republicans in the House of Representatives have introduced new bills that would, if passed, restore many of the provisions of the pared-back law, the Washington Post reported. Republican Congressman Joe Pitts said that "the Obama administration [had] demonstrated exactly why we need to have strong conscience protection for health workers written into our laws."

Pitts, the sponsor of the Protect Life Act, added, "Without legal protection, we can certainly expect even more bureaucratic assaults on the conscience of medical workers."

The law’s revision was long in coming: Obama had only been in the Oval Office a short time before announcing his intention to scale back its provisions. The law, which was signed by Bush at the end of his term, took effect the day Obama assumed the office of the presidency.

Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.

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