Ob/Gyn Group: New Ethics Standards Misinterpreted

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Obstetrican-gynecologists who don't want to perform or refer for abortions are not at risk of losing their board certification after all.

Last Friday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt sent a letter to the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, with a copy to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Leavitt said he was concerned about an ethics committee statement from ACOG in November stating that doctors should either be prepared to perform "standard reproductive services" or else refer those patients to someone who will.

Leavitt's letter said he was even more concerned that the Ob/Gyn board had made adherence to that policy a requirement for certification.

Pro-life Ob/Gyns complained that that would require them to make abortion referrals, something they morally opposed. And in his letter, Leavitt said that could violate federal laws protecting health workers' conscience rights.

But Norman Gant, executive director of the certifying board, says HHS got it all wrong.

"They took two and two and came up with five," he said.

Gant, who didn't respond sooner because he was out of the office, backed up what ACOG spokesman Gregory Phillips said Tuesday, which is that the ethics committee opinion regarding referrals is not a binding portion of the college's ethics code, and therefore not a factor in the decision about board certification.

"We do not restrict access to our exams for anyone applying for initial certification, or maintenance of certification, based on whether they do or do not perform an abortion," Gant said. "We do not base this upon whether they do or do not refer patients to an abortion provider if they do not choose to do abortions."

Gant said he dictated a letter back to Leavitt to that effect Wednesday. He added that the board has long respected the fact that its members disagree on the abortion issue — more than a decade ago it removed abortion from the list of cases to be used in oral exams.

On the other hand, Gant, himself an Ob/Gyn, said he personally had no problem with the November ethics statement, particularly the idea that Ob/Gyns should be ethically bound to provide contraception.

Apparently the Bush administration doesn't agree.

In an interview Tuesday, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health Don Wright said HHS would be relieved to find that the certifying board isn't using the ethics statement for certification decisions. As for the college, "We would still hope that they would revisit their position," Wright said.

HHS spokesman Kevin Schweers said the department would have no further comment until it receives the board's written response.