Kathleen Sebelius: Obama Backs Abortion Conscience-Clause Laws But Wants to Rescind Regulation Enforcing Them

By Penny Starr | July 6, 2009 | 7:32 PM EDT

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said President Barack Obama supports existing federal laws that prevent federally funded health care providers from forcing doctors and pharmacists who morally oppose abortion from either performing the procedure or providing abortion-inducing medication.
But Obama opposes a regulation put into place by the Bush administration that would require those federally funded providers to certify compliance with the law, Sebelius said.
On March 10, the Obama administration submitted to the Federal Register a proposal to rescind the “conscience clause” rule entitled “Ensuring That Department of Health and Human Services Funds Do Not Support Coercive or Discriminatory Policies or Practices in Violation of Federal Law.”
“There really hasn’t been a change in status of what the president proposed,” Sebelius told CNSNews.com during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “The president continues to support the underlying law.

“He felt the regulation issued in the final days of the Bush administration was overly broad and jeopardizes critical health services for women,” she said.

The March 10 proposal states: “The department believes it is important to have an opportunity to review this regulation to ensure its consistency with current Administration policy and to reevaluate the necessity for regulations implementing the Church Amendments, Section 245 of the Public Health Service Act, and the Weldon Amendment.”
The Church Amendments are conscience clauses of the Public Health Service Act, enacted at various times during the 1970s, which prohibit the use of federal funds going to health care entities that discriminate against health care professionals who morally object to abortion or sterilization.
In 2005, the Weldon Amendment was adopted as a section of the Consolidated Appropriations Act and re-adopted as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act in 2009. The amendment does not allow federal funding of entities if “such agency, program, or [state or local] government subjects any institutional or individual health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”
In explaining its proposed rescinding of the Bush administration rule, then-acting HHS Secretary Charles E. Johnson cited the public comments collected during the 60-day comment period that expired on Feb. 27, 2009.
“Commenters asserted that the rule would limit access to patient care and raised concerns that individuals could be denied access to services, with effects felt disproportionately by those in rural areas or otherwise underserved,” the acting secretary wrote.
“The Department believes that the comments on the August 2008 proposed rule raised a number of questions that warrant further careful consideration,” Johnson wrote.
In his summary of the rule, then-HHS secretary under the Bush administration, Michael Leavitt, wrote that the regulation was meant to ensure that pro-life health care professionals were protected and that federally funded health entities were following the law.
“The Department of Health and Human Services proposes to promulgate regulations to ensure that Department funds do not support morally coercive or discriminatory practices or policies in violation of federal law, pursuant to the Church Amendments (42 U.S.C. § 300a-7), Public Health Service (PHS) Act §245 (42 U.S.C. § 238n), and the Weldon Amendment (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-161, § 508(d), 121 Stat. 1844, 2209),” reads the summary.  
“This notice of proposed rulemaking proposes to define certain key terms. Furthermore, in order to ensure that recipients of Department funds know about their legal obligations under these nondiscrimination provisions, the Department proposes to require written certification by certain recipients that they will comply with all three statutes, as applicable,” the summary added.
Sebelius refused to answer a follow-up question about if and when the “conscience clause” rule would be officially rescinded by President Obama.