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Nursing Grudges

Why do we protect the moral convictions of only some health workers?

By Dahlia LithwickPosted Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008, at 6:38 AM ET

What does it tell us about the state of the abortion wars today that battles once waged over the dignity and autonomy of pregnant women have morphed into disputes over the dignity and autonomy of their health care providers instead? Two of the most pitched battles over reproductive rights in America right now turn on whether health workers can be forced to provide medical services or information to which they ethically or professionally object. But as we learn from these fights, our solicitude for the beliefs of medical workers is selective: Abortion opponents will soon enjoy broader legal protections than ever. Those willing to provide abortions, on the other hand, seem to enjoy far fewer. And women seeking reproductive services? They will continue to be caught in the tangle between the two.

The first dispute concerns a new rule purporting to protect the "right of conscience" of American health care workers. Under a new midnight regulation crammed through by the Bush Department of Health and Human Services and poised to become law any day now, any health care worker may refuse to perform procedures, offer advice, or dispense prescriptions if doing so would offend his or her "religious beliefs or moral convictions." Congress has protected the right of physicians and nurses to opt out of providing abortions for decades. But this new rule, which President-elect Obama can overturn (although it may take months for him to do so), is far, far broader. It allows your access to birth control, emergency contraception, and even artificial insemination to turn on the moral preferences of your pharmacist, nurse, or ambulance driver.

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