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Bush 'Conscience' Rule Strengthens Workers' Right to Refuse Care

It may create heated abortion debate during Obama's first months in office.

For more than 30 years, federal law has protected the rights of doctors and nurses to refuse to perform abortions. Now, in his last weeks in office, President Bush is expected to announce a "right of conscience" rule that would clarify and possibly extend what healthcare workers may refuse to provide based on moral convictions.

The rule, supported by the Christian Medical Association (CMA) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, would

(1) clarify that healthcare workers not only may refuse to perform abortions, but may also refuse to provide information or advice regarding them;

(2) protect more medical employees, such as operating-room technicians involved in but not central to abortion procedures; and

(3) possibly include artificial insemination and birth control as things workers could refuse to provide or give advice on.

The rule could clarify pharmacists' right to refuse filling prescriptions for emergency contraception that they consider to be abortion-inducing. CMA president David Stevens told the Los Angeles Times, "The real battle line is the morning-after pill. This prevents the embryo from implanting. This involves moral complicity. Doctors should not be required to dispense a medication they have a moral objection to." Pillls such as Preven and Plan B can be taken 72 hours after unprotected sex and prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterine wall, which some consider an early abortion.

The proposed rule would also prohibit medical communities that receive federal funding from discriminating against workers who refuse to perform abortion or sterilization procedures based on moral convictions. According to The New York Times, officials from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission strongly oppose the rule, saying it "would overturn 40 years of civil rights law prohibiting job discrimination based on religion."

The conscience rule will be official when Barack Obama takes office if it is issued by December 20. The President-elect has expressed objections to the rule because it hinders women's reproductive rights, and said he would rescind the rule, a process taking 3-6 months.

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