Policy-ish

New Contraception Rules Spark 'Conscience Clause' Debate

Contraception is not abortion.

That's pretty much the bottom line of the new rules President Obama issued Friday.

Those rules are the latest attempt to clarify the details of a much-debated "conscience clause" allowing health care providers to decline care to patients if it would violate their religious beliefs.

The Bush administration defined the conscience law in 2008, but it was criticized by abortion-rights advocates as overly broad.

The Bush rules allowed not just health workers but hospitals and even entire insurance companies to decline to provide abortions or any other service that violate a "religious belief or moral conviction."

The Obama administration's version of the rules, however, which come after consideration of more than 300,000 public comments, take a more narrow approach.

"There is no indication that the federal health care provider conscience statutes intended that the term 'abortion' included contraception," the new rules say.

It drew exactly the reactions you'd expect.

"The language published today reaffirms the principles of protecting the doctor-patient relationship by repealing the most onerous and intrusive parts of Bush's last-minute refusal rule," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

NARAL said the rules, as originally written, "could have allowed insurance companies to deny claims for birth control pills, hospitals to refuse emergency contraception to rape survivors, and employees at HMOs to refuse their patients referrals for abortion care."

But Tony Perkins, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, called the changes "a blow both to medicine and the right to practice one's deeply held convictions.

"It's a sad fact that discrimination against health care workers who object to participating in abortion is a continuing threat from both federally funded organizations and the government," Perkins said.

At the same time, however, the administration did retain some parts of the original regulation. Specifically, provisions laying out a way for those who believe their rights have been violated to find relief.

Aggrieved parties will now be able to take their claims to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights.

The debate is far from over, however. Legislation introduced by House Republican Chris Smith (R-NJ) would write some of the conscience protections that are currently renewed annually into permanent law.

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