A last-minute Bush administration plan to grant sweeping new protections to health-care providers who oppose abortion on religious or moral grounds has provoked a torrent of objections, including a strenuous protest from the government agency that enforces job-discrimination laws.
The proposed rule would prohibit recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and other health-care workers who refuse to perform or to assist in the performance of abortions because of their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
It would also prevent hospitals, clinics, doctors' offices and drugstores from requiring employees with religious or moral objections to “assist in the performance of any part of a health service program or research activity” financed by the Department of Health and Human Services.
But three officials from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including its legal counsel, whom President Bush appointed, said the proposal would overturn 40 years of civil rights law prohibiting job discrimination based on religion.
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The counsel, Reed Russell, and two Democratic members of the commission, Stuart Ishimaru and Christine Griffin, also called the rule unnecessary for employees' protection.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, Russell said, and courts have defined “religion” broadly to include “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong, which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”
Ishimaru and senior members of the commission staff said neither the Department of Health and Human Services nor the White House had consulted their agency before issuing the proposed rule. The White House Office of Management and Budget received the proposal Aug. 21 and cleared it on the same day.
The protest from the commission follows other objections by doctors, pharmacists, hospitals, state attorneys general and politicians, including President-elect Barack Obama.
Obama has said the proposal will raise new hurdles to women seeking services, like abortion and some contraceptives. Michael Leavitt, the Health and Human Services secretary, said that was not the purpose.
Officials at the Health and Human Services Department said they intended to issue a final version of the rule within days. Aides and advisers to Obama said he would try to rescind it, a process that could take three to six months.
The proposal is supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals.
Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, said that in recent years, “we have seen a variety of efforts to force Catholic and other health care providers to perform or refer for abortions and sterilizations.”
But the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association have urged the Bush administration to withdraw the proposed rule.
Pharmacies said it would let employees refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives and could “lead to Medicaid patients being turned away.” State officials said it could void state laws that require insurance plans to cover contraceptives and require hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims.
The Ohio Health Department said the rule “could force family planning providers to hire workers who may refuse to do their jobs” – a concern echoed by the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.