HHS clarifies abortion 'conscience' rule

February 23, 2011

As a doctor, you can still refuse to perform abortions and sterilizations on moral grounds, but you can?t refuse to provide contraception and family planning services, under a new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

WASHINGTON – As a doctor, you can still refuse to perform abortions and sterilizations on moral grounds, but you can’t refuse to provide contraception and family planning services, under a new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The rule replaces one created in the last days of the Bush administration that aimed to strengthen the longstanding policy forbidding the federal government from discriminating against providers who refuse to perform abortions or sterilizations, or to provide referrals for them on religious or moral grounds.

The Bush rule required institutions receiving federal money to certify compliance with the conscience rules. Several states and medical organizations sued, claiming that the paperwork would be too expensive and that the language in the rule was so broad that it could be used to deny birth control and family planning services.

The new rule eliminates the certification requirement and clarifies that the conscience rule protection covers only abortions and sterilizations, not contraception and other services. HHS promises a campaign to make doctors, nurses, and hospitals aware of what is covered by the rule, which takes effect in mid-March.