The Los Angeles Times has reported that the Bush Administration seeks to implement a "right of conscience" rule that would allow healthcare professionals to refuse to perform any procedures that they find morally objectionable. Think of it as a conscientious objector clause for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and entire medical facilities.
The new potential rule would augment the long-standing rule that allows medical professionals to refuse to perform abortions by allowing said medical professionals to refuse to provide advice or information to women seeking abortions. The proposed rule is apparently loosely written enough so that medical professionals might choose to refuse to participate in more than abortions; it could allow refusal of the provision of birth control, artificial insemination, and sterilization.
Now, on the one hand, I have a certain respect for individuals' rights to their religious beliefs/convictions, however sensible or ridiculous, and, in principle, I don't have a problem with legislation that supports medical professionals' rights not to engage in activities that they don't want to engage in. On the other hand, "right of conscience" might be very loosely interpreted. For example, would such a rule allow a nurse who is a white supremacist to refuse to administer treatments to a person of color? Would the rule allow a Christian doctor to refuse to treat a Muslim patient? What constitutes "right of conscience" and who gets to interpret it? If we allow medical professionals with anti-abortion attitudes to opt out of a wide range of medical practices, some well beyond the scope of abortion itself, wouldn't the government be obligated to allow medical professionals to refuse to participate in any procedure for any reason, no matter how far outside the mainstream understanding of "right of conscience?" Perhaps it bears repeating that no medical professional is obliged to participate in aborting a fetus, with the possible exception of cases in which the life of the mother is at stake.
There's another part of me that thinks persons such as pharmacists have no goddamned business deciding who, if anybody, should be allowed birth control. This is a free country and if one doesn't like certain aspects of a given profession, one had the right to 1) not enter that profession to begin with, and 2) to leave that profession to pursue more morally pure employment. If I'm a carpet salesman and I think that shag carpeting is an abomination, would I have a right to refuse to sell shag carpet to someone who wanted it? To that end, there's a reason why you don't see many environmentalists employed as salespeople at Hummer dealerships.
Of course, this could be little more than a last-minute jab at the incoming Obama Administration by the outgoing Bush Administration. Given the Democrats' control of Congress, such a rule could be overturned, but formal Congressional procedure would be time-consuming and clumsy, but ultimately, Bush's effort could come to naught.