New medical refusal rule may go well beyond abortion decisions

For years, federal law has permitted doctors and nurses the right to refuse to perform abortions, and things have more or less stood that way. Earlier this year, however, the Bush Administration stepped into the issue. Federal officials argued that new rules that had just been issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists--requiring OB/GYNs to refer patients for procedures they didn't want to perform themselves--were unfair to physicians. In fact, outgoing HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt got involved, asking not only ACOG, but also the profession's certifying board, to hold off.

The Bush Administration is involving itself in medical decision-making issues again, however, and this time it has larger goals. The outgoing leadership is planning to announce a much-broader "right of conscience" rule allowing facilities, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers to refuse to be involved in procedures to which they object. This could extend current rules beyond abortion, to birth control and artificial insemination. The new rules would also clarify that healthcare workers can refuse to give advice or information to patients who might potentially seek an abortion.

HHS intends the rule to apply to any entity that receives federal funds--a whopping 584,000 providers--including hospitals, doctor's offices and pharmacies.

To learn more about this issue:
- read this piece from the Los Angeles Times

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