Guest Post: “Proposed HHS Rule Harmful To Women’s Interests”

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By National Womens Law Center Vice President Judy Waxman:

Last week, the Bush Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a proposed rule that will harm women’s health by impeding access to care and by denying vital information women need to make responsible decisions about their health and lives.

The rule follows an earlier leaked draft that incited a firestorm of public outrage over language which defined many common forms of contraception as abortion. The most controversial language has been removed, yet – even with the edits – the new version of the rule expands the universe of providers that can refuse contraception and other health care services, including abortion.

Like the leaked version, the rule allows doctors, nurses, and nearly any one else employed in a health care setting to deny women access to birth control based on their own personal belief that birth control is immoral. Yet this rule goes beyond limiting access to birth control and abortion. It allows any employee of a health care provider working in a program that receives HHS funding to refuse to treat any individual receiving any service – if doing so would violate his or her moral beliefs:without regard for the needs of the patients.

If implemented, women seeking care at one of the more than 584,000 health centers that receives direct or indirect funds from HHS may no longer be guaranteed access to common forms of birth control or, if pregnant, information about all of their options. For example, a doctor employed by a federally funded prenatal screening program who is opposed to abortion may believe that he is entitled to deny a pregnant woman information about a serious fetal anomaly that might cause her to consider her option to terminate the pregnancy.

The rule makes no mention of existing federal employment law, Title VII, which provides a careful balance of protecting the religious beliefs of all employees – including health care providers – while also allowing employers to ensure that patients get access to vital health care services and information. Under Title VII, the doctor in the above scenario must request that someone else in the program provide the test results and appropriate counseling. The employer must then accommodate the request as long as it can be met without having a detrimental impact on the business or patients’ access to care.

The Administration’s proposed rule flies in the face of a commonsense approach that ensures that women have access to contraception and other reproductive health care services, and that supports health care programs that provide care for women most in need. The National Women’s Law Center strongly opposes this proposed rule because of the havoc it would cause, and calls for health care policies that meet the needs of women and their families, not undermine them.

Cross-posted from The Hill Blog. Related WaPo article here.

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