Under the conscience provisions of the Public Service Act and the Church Amendments, a new proposed federal regulation was issued by the HHS that would permit federally funded health care providers to exercise their "rights of conscience." Such providers could not be compelled to provide lawful services with which they have a moral objection. The proposed regulation:

  • Clarifies that nondiscrimination protections apply to institutional health care providers and to individual employees working for recipients of certain funds from HHS;
  • Requires recipients of certain HHS funds to certify their compliance with laws protecting provider conscience rights;
  • Designates the HHS Office for Civil Rights as the entity to receive complaints of discrimination addressed by the existing statutes and the proposed regulation; and
  • Charges HHS officials to work with any state or local government or entity that may be in violation of existing statutes and encourages voluntary steps to bring that government or entity into compliance with the law. HHS officials would consider all legal options, including termination of funding and the return of funds paid out in violation of the nondiscrimination provisions.

The proposed regulation would not restrict health care providers from performing any legal service or procedure. It would require a patient to seek such lawful services from a medical professional or institution that does not assert a conflict of conscience. Critics argue that the regulation will lead to significant censorship in vast areas of medical care and research, particularly those involving reproductive health. Proponents suggest that health care workers and providers should not be compelled or coerced into performing services with which they take moral issue. Given the potential ramifications of the regulation, it is likely that Congress will take up the issue in the next legislative session. Access the full regulation here.