Obama, Illinois House question ‘conscience clause’ validity

By Colleen Vest

The Obama administration and some women’s rights groups have been looking into rescinding the conscience clause for abortion and contraception that the Bush administration issued.

The conscience clause allows doctors to refuse performing an abortion or providing contraceptives to patients because of moral objections. Issued under the Bush administration, the conscience clause became effective on President Barack Obama’s first day in office, said Gretchen Borchelt, senior consultant for National Women’s Law Center, which educates the public about ways to make the law and public policies work together for women and their families.

“The general idea is that a health care provider can say no to performing abortions or providing emergency contraception,” said Beth Burkstrand-Reid, visiting assistant law professor who did a study focusing on women’s rights and their access to health care. “The conscience clause is a very difficult area because it has to balance protecting women’s health rights with a pharmacist or doctor’s religious rights, both of which need to be protected.”

The Illinois House proposed a bill on Feb. 18 called The Reproductive Health and Access Act as an alternative to a conscience clause. It is currently going through a second reading and debate in the Illinois House of Representatives.

The Reproductive Health and Access Act states that no municipality or government agency shall deny or interfere with a person’s right to use or refuse contraception, deny or interfere with a woman’s right to bear children, deny or interfere with a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, or require any woman to terminate pregnancy without her consent, according to the Illinois General Assembly Web site.

“The house bill is more patient-centered and satisfies provider needs, and it satisfies patient needs,” said Allison Jones, community organizer for women’s health for the Champaign County Health Care Consumers. “It’s not a doctor’s job to pass judgment.”

“I think this bill is a really good idea and is helpful for patients and providers,” Jones said.

Aside from proposed legislation about contraception issues, a court case relating to a pharmacy’s right to refuse emergency contraception has been in the Illinois court system since 2005.

The Illinois Circuit Court in Springfield issued a temporary restraining order on Friday prohibiting the governor and other state officials from enforcing the 2005 regulation.

The regulation required all pharmacies to dispense all forms of FDA-approved contraception, said Frank Manion, senior counsel with American Center for Law and Justice.

“I represented two pharmacists who owned five pharmacies between them in Northern Illinois in this case,” Manion said. “This order just applies to these two pharmacists but may apply to all pharmacies in the future.”

In June, there may be a decision regarding a permanent injunction, which would apply to all Illinois pharmacies, he said.

“The two clients were opposed to selling Plan B and other emergency contraceptives, but they had no objection to what people call ordinary contraception,” Manion said.