Under current law, recipients of federal money cannot force medical professionals to provide abortion or sterilization services if they object for moral or religious reasons. But proposed regulations would expand these laws at patients' expense.
As if they haven't done enough, the Bush Administration is making one last attempt to undermine women's reproductive freedom. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently proposed a regulation that it claims will protect federally-funded healthcare providers from discrimination; but in reality, will further limit a woman's ability to obtain health services and increase the number of providers and institutions allowed to refuse her care. Low-income women and women of color who rely more on public programs will ultimately be hit the hardest. Significant percentages of Latinas, Asia Pacific Islanders and African-American women work in low-wage jobs that don't offer benefits and therefore, they lack health insurance of any kind. Public programs such as Medicaid and Title X fill that void by covering prenatal, pregnancy-related care and contraceptive services. The deeply flawed regulation fails to serve the needs of these patients by erecting new barriers to their obtaining reproductive healthcare.
Under current law, recipients of federal money, such as Medicaid and Title X, cannot force medical professionals to provide a woman abortion or sterilization services if they object for moral or religious reasons. But the proposed regulations would expand these laws at the expense of patients in several ways. For one, startlingly, healthcare providers may now be able to refuse to provide a woman contraception as well as abortion. The initial draft of the regulations included a definition of abortion that was so broad that it included some forms of contraception, such as birth control pills and IUDs. After a huge public outcry, the HHS removed that definition, but by raising the issue in the first place, the department left the door open for healthcare providers to use the sweeping definition to justify the denial of contraception. Before no institution would have objected to giving a woman birth control pills and argued that it is the same as performing an abortion.
Two, under the proposed regulation, HHS would expand the pool of medical professionals who can deny a woman services. Not only doctors, but virtually anyone involved--like receptionists, health insurance claim adjustors, and janitors--would be able to refuse to perform tasks based on religious or moral beliefs. For example, a receptionist may be allowed to decline to make an appointment for a woman who needs a prescription for birth control pills or a nurse may choose not to sterilize equipment used in an abortion. Such refusals will not only disrupt services in health facilities, but could possibly result in a woman not receiving reproductive care at all.
Finally, the proposed regulation would allow healthcare professionals to withhold basic information, including counseling and referrals. This means that healthcare providers could not only refuse to give information about abortion and contraception to a woman, but also to refer her to someone who can explain to her all of her options.
Low-income women and women of color already face significant hurdles in accessing healthcare including discrimination, inflexible work schedules, and inadequate childcare and transportation. If they are turned away from healthcare providers, they may not have the resources to locate another physician or healthcare facility and make arrangements for a second time.
HHS was required by law to include a cost-benefit analysis with the proposed regulation, but its analysis was cursory and inadequate, ignoring the costs to individual patients and the severe impact the regulation will have on vulnerable groups. The department did not even point to a single instance where current have failed to protect healthcare providers' religious liberty and yet, that is the problem the new rules are purportedly designed to solve. The supposed benefits, such as diversity in the workforce and increasing awareness of protections for health care providers, are not supported by any evidence. There's no scientific, statistical or empirical data showing that the supposed benefits are a likely to occur if the regulation is adopted.
There is already an imbalance between rights of conscience and a woman's right to reproductive health care in this country, and the regulations will purposefully tip the balance further away from a woman's rights. Implementation of these regulations will only exacerbate the difficulties low income women face in getting healthcare and allow the denial of vital health information and services to those who need it most.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health believe that the regulations should be rejected outright, and are submitting joint comments to the HHS, focusing primarily on the impact on low-income women and women of color. You can read these comments here.