Common Ground on Abortion: A Study in Contrasts

February 18th highlighted two starkly different approaches on the issue of abortion.

On that day, the Obama administration issued a rule that refined the "midnight regulations" on federal conscience clause protections that were issued by the Bush administration. The new HHS rule was in effect a partial rescission of the Bush regulation. The Obama rule kept in place key components of the 2008 rule and sought to carefully balance the rights of medical providers who have moral objections to certain procedures with the ability of patients to obtain the medical care they need. It was yet another illustration of the nuanced, respectful, common-ground approach that President Obama and his administration have long taken on the divisive issue of abortion.

But just a few hours later, in another part of Washington, the Republican controlled House of Representatives voted to cut off federal funding for mammograms, STD tests, and contraception for low-income women by passing an amendment that would bar Planned Parenthood from obtaining federal money and eliminate the entire federal family planning program known as Title X. Rejecting President Obama's, and the majority of the country's, plea to work together to reduce the need for abortion by preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women, the new House Republican majority opted for a take-no-prisoners ideological approach. This act, in addition to being completely out of line with what the American people continue to ask of their leaders on this issue, would likely have the opposite effect from what pro-life Members claim to desire. By decreasing access to birth control, it would likely contribute to increasing the number of abortions in this country, since half of unintended pregnancies end in abortion.

The Obama administration's actions carefully considered both sides, and rather than rejecting the old rule wholesale, reiterated federal conscience clause protections that have been on the books for nearly 40 years, while rolling back certain provisions from the Bush regulations that were clearly beyond the scope of federal law. The new rule kept intact the detailed enforcement mechanisms laid out by the Bush administration, including a process for medical providers to file complaints with the HHS Office of Civil Rights if they feel they are discriminated against in violation of federal conscience protections. In addition, the new regulation unveiled increased education and outreach initiatives in order to ensure that health care providers are aware of their statutory rights and know where to turn if they are aggrieved.

The new regulation also clarified that federal statutes do not equate birth control with abortion and reiterated that conscience protections do not allow medical providers to refuse to treat a patient, or an entire group of people, just because the patient has done something of which the provider disapproves. The new rule restates that federal conscience clause protections are intended to shield a health care provider who objects to participating in a certain medical procedure--not someone who doesn't want to give medical treatment to gay people or another group whose behavior they simply don't like.

The Obama administration's new conscience clause rule seeks common ground, balance, and mutual respect on this emotional and often divisive issue. Unfortunately, the laudable common-ground principles the Obama administration strove for are strikingly absent from the firebrand speeches and drastic actions taken by House Republicans the very same day. In the coming weeks, our divided government will have to work together to find a compromise on the Title X cuts, as with many other issues. For the sake of the country, let's hope that the negotiation is motivated by the principles evident in the new HHS rule, not the bombastic and myopic approach illustrated by the House attack on Planned Parenthood.