Just over a month before President George W. Bush's departure from office, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today issued a new regulation that will drastically hinder women's ability to get reproductive health services--including basic care such as contraception, counseling and information necessary to make decisions about their own health. The new regulation allows people only tangentially related to the provision of health care and an increased number of medical institutions to refuse a woman care based on religious and moral beliefs. HHS claims this will further protect health care providers against discrimination. In reality, it leaves women who rely on public programs unprotected and seriously violates their rights and needs as patients. HHS also purposely leaves the door open for health care providers to justify refusing a woman basic forms of contraception such as birth control pills and IUDs.
The Obama administration must take immediate steps to rescind this extremely harmful policy come January. Congress must take up the issue as well; I applaud Senators Hillary Clinton and Pat Murray for already introducing legislation that will block HHS from moving forward with the rule.
In just a matter of months, the Bush administration has undone three decades of federal protections for both medical professionals and their patients and then replaced them with a policy that seriously risks the health of millions of women. Then, the administration had the gall to pass it off as benevolent.
There are more than 17 million women across the country who will bear the burden of this harsh regulation--a disproportionate number of them low-income and women of color. Both groups rely heavily on public health programs as their only access to reproductive health services. But the new regulation allows almost any worker in a health care facility--even a receptionist--to turn them away, withhold information and refuse to refer them elsewhere. As it is, low-income women and women of color already face tremendous barriers getting health care, including racial discrimination, inadequate funding of medical assistance programs, logistical obstacles such as inflexible work schedules and inadequate child care.
The new HHS regulation only serves to exacerbate existing problems and achieves nothing at all. President-elect Obama, please take immediate action and stop the damage to women's health before it starts.