Some of the most chilling threats are whispered. This is the case in a recent blog post by Michael Leavitt, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. In soothing tones, Leavitt explains on his personal blog that a recently leaked HHS proposal was not what he intended. That proposal sought to reclassify many forms of contraception as abortion, a strategy to protect those who want to deny women pregnancy prevention. Leavitt's post starts off seeming like an apology for what one hopes was a really big misunderstanding ("An early draft of the regulations found its way into public circulation before it had reached my review," he writes). But his explanation does not put to rest any concerns that the agency will offer cover to ideological extremists. Instead, Leavitt explains that what he seeks is something far more vague and all encompassing than merely reclassifying common forms of contraception as abortion. For example, he seems to say, what about all the other contraceptives that would fall outside that classification? Like the condom or diaphragm? A health care worker could have a problem with those too. His clarification suggests, "We didn't mean to leave those out." And why limit this to just abortion and contraception? (There's gotta be hundreds of medical procedures and medications that the morally imaginative could think are wrong.) Secretary Leavitt's idea appears to be that folks of conscience shouldn't have to make scientific sounding arguments claiming something causes abortion in order to deny a patient care. According to Leavitt, the health care you seek could be morally offensive for a whole host of other reasons, not just abortion. No matter the health care need, it's whatever the practitioner's conscience dictates.
The Bush Administration has consistently supported the unborn. However, the issue I asked to be addressed in this regulation is not abortion or contraceptives, but the legal right medical practitioners have to practice according to their conscience and patients should be able to choose a doctor who has beliefs like his or hers. The Department is still contemplating if it will issue a regulation or not. If it does, it will be directly focused on the protection of practitioner conscience.
Leavitt's thinking on the matter raises more questions than it answers. Would a regulation include a measure that establishes what the agency accepts as unacceptable? Leavitt's post explained that defining what is objectionable was not his goal. His goal is too create sanctuary for anyone who hopes to use "conscience"--yet to be defined--as an excuse not do the jobs they were hired to do. The only part of the leaked HHS proposal Leavitt addressed as "not his intention" was that it limited the "right to refuse" protection. The leaked regulation applied that protection only to those who have a problem with abortion and many forms of contraception. That, to him, seems too limiting.
He doesn't offer any correction to reports that, if approved, the leaked proposal would force health centers to hire religious extremists. For instance, under the leaked proposal, it would be illegal to discriminate in hiring against those who refuse to take part in a health care service even if the service they object to is the main focus of the facility. (Thank you for calling Planned Parenthood, this is Randall Terry, how may I help you?) He doesn't debunk predictions that the leaked proposal would invalidate state laws established to protect patients from the ever changing whims and superstitions of ideologues whose main goals is to exercise their beliefs in our bodies. Leavitt does not deny that laws that now require emergency room staff to offer rape victims pregnancy prevention would be unenforceable. We are left to believe that much of the leaked proposal is perfectly fine with him.
If Leavitt's intent is as broad, and undefined, as he seems to suggest in his blog post, your right to health care will be determined by the sensitivities of nearly every person you must interact with. Your doctor may not have a problem giving you that prescription, but will the pharmacist fill it? And, if so, will the cashier ring it up? Women have to run a gauntlet to get reproductive health care in recent years. If we leave it to Leavitt, that gauntlet may be the healthcare passage for everyone.
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