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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Health and Human Services abandons health, humans

Published: September 5, 2008
Section: Opinions

If you’re like me, you occasionally get sick. When this happens, I find that going to the doctor is the best option. You go in, he or she asks you where it hurts and what kind of animal bit you, and you get a prescription to cure your ills or a pat on the back accompanied with “it’s viral, wait it out.” Such is our modern society. But what if during this visit, your doctor decided that your ailment or its cure was objectionable, or even that you were objectionable, and refused to treat you, or refer you to anyone who would. Suddenly our modern society has become a lot less friendly to those in need of medical care.

This is the world envisioned by Michael Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services. His job description, according to his official biography page, is to “protect the health of all Americans and provide essential human services to those in need.” His current project seems to directly contradict this.

The new HHS Regulation #45 CFR Part 88 seeks to establish a standard for enforcing the various “conscience clause” laws on the books. The idea of the conscience clause is to protect doctors and other healthcare entities who refuse to take any part in abortions from discrimination. I don’t really object to this, there are plenty of doctors who will give an abortion, and it is not an emergency procedure.

In this regulation, however, the Department of Health and Human Services attempts to interpret these laws in what amounts to executive lawmaking.

One provision states that entities to whom the regulation applies to (any medical organization that receives any federal funding) shall not “require any individual to perform or assist in the performance of any part of a health service program or research activity funded by the Department if such service or activity would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.” It also prohibits discrimination against any individual who refuses to take part in any health service on the grounds of religious or moral belief.

What are the implications of this? Well, if you are a Scientologist doctor, it means that there could be no action taken against you for refusing to refer a depressed, suicidal patient to a psychiatrist. If you believe AIDS to be a punishment from God to gay people, surely you mustn’t treat a homosexual who has it. At this point my dear readers are no doubt thinking, “But it can’t be interpreted that broadly, can it?” The answer is that what matters about this regulation is how it is interpreted by the individual medical organizations. The HHS will not become a part of the process unless there is a perceived breach in the regulation.

So what will individual health organizations think is exercising religious freedom and what will they decide is unacceptable denial of patient care? And will it change their opinion that in the “Purpose” section of the regulation it says “the statutory provisions and regulations contained in this Part are to be interpreted and implemented broadly to effectuate these protections [?]”

I have confidence that the vast majority of doctors would not abandon their Hippocratic Oath and would be willing to help their patients in every scenario. If even one person, however, is hurt by this crude attack on our medical rights, it is far more than we should bear. Part of the impact analysis HHS provided for this regulation is that the healthcare industry “will benefit from more diverse and inclusive workforces.” I too see how this regulation could benefit diversity. There are 234,200 physicians offices in this nation of ours. Imagine if all of them were distinguished by the sign outside that told prospective patients which medical services they refused to provide.