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Rescinding Troubling “Conscience Rule” Vital to Protecting Women’s Health

Saperstein: “To protect and strengthen the health and well-being of all Americans, individuals must have access to the full range of health care services and information, including contraception.”

Contact: Kate Bigam or Jill Zimmerman
202.387.2800 | news@rac.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 13, 2009 – In response the Obama administration’s intent to overturn the so-called “conscience rule” put into effect at the last minute by the Bush administration, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, last week submitted the following comments to the Department of Health and Human Services:

Dear Acting Secretary Johnson:

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, we write in support of the Administration’s proposed rule to rescind the December 19, 2008 final rule titled “Ensuring That Department of Health and Human Services Funds Do Not Support Coercive or Discriminatory Policies or Practices in Violation of Federal Law.” This regulation fails to strike the proper balance between the individual health care provider’s right to his or her own religious and moral beliefs and the patient’s right to access health care services.

As a religious body, we are well aware of the many contexts in which existing laws permit an individual or institution to refuse to provide certain health care services if doing so violates the individual's or institution's moral or religious beliefs. Among these, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act stipulates that employers with 15 or more employees must accommodate the religious beliefs of their employees. Title VII applies to pharmacies, hospitals and other health care institutions, if the 15-employee threshold is met and if there is no exemption because the employer is a religious institution. We are not aware of any phenomenon of widespread confusion in the health care community about this area of law, nor are we aware of any widespread clamoring for a rule such as the one under consideration.  Rather, if the rule is not rescinded, it will undoubtedly have the effect of muddying an area of regulation that has long met the needs of health care providers and patients.

A fundamental principle of our health care system must be that patients are provided with the health care service they request and need without delay. Only when accommodation of religious objections can be achieved consistent with this goal should such objections be accommodated. Moreover, clear rules and procedures to ensure that accommodation does not compromise access to comprehensive health care are necessary lest patients facing such objections lack precise mechanisms to ensure they are served.

The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) new regulation does not meet these threshold principles. The rule's overly broad definitions and the diminished right of patients' access to services is deeply troubling. It impacts patients' access to a wide range of basic health services and information, including reproductive health services, by allowing individuals to refuse to offer services they deem morally objectionable. As the primary federal institution tasked with upholding the quality of health are in our nation, the significant threat to public health posed by this rule should be of deep concern to you, as it is to us.

The Reform Jewish Movement has a longstanding commitment to the principles of religious liberty and reproductive freedom. These are not mutually exclusive goals, though the new rule creates the false dynamic of a zero sum game. The Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Women of Reform Judaism, North American Federation of Temple Youth, and the Commission on Social Action have consistently, and in a wide variety of contexts, condemned government interference with an individual's right to practice his or her own religion. Similarly, for decades, the Reform Movement has supported a woman's right to control her own reproductive health decisions. Striking the proper balance between these two commitments is critical.

To protect and strengthen the health and well-being of all Americans, individuals must have access to the full range of health care services and information, including contraception. Please rescind this harmful rule in its entirety.

Sincerely,
/s/
Rabbi David Saperstein

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1,800 Reform rabbis.



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