Obama rolls back Bush "conscience rule"

Barack Obama began the process of rolling back one of the more notable rules imposed in the final weeks of the Bush administration, the “conscience rule” regarding abortion counseling and contraception access.  The rule generated a lot of heat from pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood, and its repeal has provoked cries of outrage from their opponents.  The rule, though, was never as onerous as described, nor will its repeal mean forcing doctors to perform abortions:

Taking another step into the abortion debate, the Obama administration today will move to rescind a controversial rule that allows healthcare workers to deny abortion counseling or other family planning services if doing so would violate their moral beliefs, according to administration officials.

The rollback of the so-called conscience rule comes just two months after the Bush administration announced it late last year in one of its final policy initiatives.

The new administration’s action seems certain to stoke ideological battles between supporters and opponents of abortion rights over the responsibilities of doctors, nurses and other medical workers to their patients.

Some have taken this to mean that the government will force doctors to provide abortions.  The rule didn’t actually protect doctors from government-imposed abortions.  They already had that protection of conscience in federal law, as the Los Angeles Times reports, and the rule didn’t change that.  Instead, it extended the protection of conscience to a much wider range of activities, such as dispensing contraceptive pills and devices and discussion of contraception and abortion as therapeutic options.  Because the Bush administration could not have passed such a wide-ranging protection into law through a Democratic Congress, it had to use the rules process, which is easily reversed in succeeding administrations.

In fact, one has to wonder how committed the Bush administration was to this rule in the first place.  It didn’t bother to propose the conscience rule as law when Republicans controlled Congress, nor did it create the rule until the final weeks of their tenure in the White House.  Obama’s rollback just puts the medical industry back to the same status it held in September of last year.  It looks more like a poison pill for the Obama administration, giving them a political hotfoot and the pro-life movement an easy rallying point early in Obama’s first term.

Still, this rollback says something about the Obama administration’s priorities.  While the freedom of religion is explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution, the Roe right to an abortion is implied through emanations and penumbras — but the Obama administration appears more concerned with the latter than the former.  Patients who don’t like doctors who won’t discuss abortion or prescribe contraception can see another doctor; they can also find another pharmacist if the neighborhood pharmacy won’t fill a prescription for the Pill.  The free market works out those issues on its own without government sticking its nose into it and forcing providers to violate their religious tenets to stay in business.

Isn’t the government busy with more pressing matters at the moment?