On Friday, someone emailed me with a link to this story about a “compromise” executive order issued by President Obama pertaining to conscience protections for workers in the health care industry, and asked for my opinion. The only answer I could give at the time was that I was not sure what the effect of the executive order would be, but that I would try to ruminate on it over the weekend to see if I came up with anything. After spending the weekend doing just that, I am afraid that I am no closer to the answer. I suspect, as with many Executive Orders, that the critical details will be answered in the course of implementation. Given the Obama Administration’s general hostility towards the views of honest pro-lifers, this is not a comforting prospect.
By way of background, nurses and doctors working in facilities receiving federal funding have long received theoretical statutory conscience protection preventing them from being forced to participate in abortions and similar procedures. I say “theoretical” because the law has been horribly enforced over the years. In an effort to combat this, the Bush administration issued an executive order in the waning days of Bush’s Presidency which expanded this conscience protection to all health care workers and expanded the range of procedures to which health care workers could (in essence) conscientiously object.
The Washington Post article notes the usual lines of attack that were employed against this Executive Order, claiming that it would have shielded workers who, for example, refused to provide fertilization treatments for single women, or (somewhat ridiculously) hospital janitors who refused to clean a hospital room after an abortion. Although the Order was certainly not that broad, it was definitely intended to expand coverage to people such as CNAs, Pharmacists, pharmacy techs, and the like, and would have at least arguably encompassed dispensing birth control pills, etc. From what I can tell, the new Obama Executive Order strips all these extra protections away and reduces the coverage of the Executive Order only to doctors and nurses, and covered procedures only to abortions and sterilizations.
Of course, wrangling over the precise language in the Executive Order is most likely a circus sideshow to where the real fight will lie, which is in the enforcement. For instance, the immigration laws we have on the books right now are quite strict; however, they are widely (and correctly) viewed as a joke because of decades of lax enforcement. And given what we know about the Obama administration’s hostility to honest pro-life convictions, it seems inevitable that health care workers will honest conscientious objections to participating in abortion or the distribution of arbortifacient medications will continue to live in fear of their jobs, despite clear Federal law indicating that they should not.