HHS Sec. Leavitt Responds Further to Objections, Ignores Substance

By Rachel Walden — August 13, 2008

In a follow-up post on “physician conscience,” HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt refers to the uproar generated by a proposed regulation we covered last week, saying:

“I’m delighted to announce that with the help of Planned Parenthood, my blog — for the first time — received more visits than my teenage son’s MySpace page. Perhaps I’ll address the subject of physician conscience one more time.”

Leavitt fails to acknowledge that, along with many feminists and reproductive rights advocates, organizations such as the American Medical Association and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have spoken out against the proposal. While Planned Parenthood certainly referred people to Leavitt’s blog to voice their concerns in the comments, ignoring the objections from the professional medical community and numerous other organizations and focusing on Planned Parenthood certainly seems like an attempt to frame the argument as one coming from a fringe minority. Meanwhile, anti-choice groups such as Concerned Women for America and LifeNews are also referring people to Leavitt’s blog, which is quite clear in the comments of the follow-up post.

In his response, Leavitt seems again to allude to his misunderstanding of the potential of the ACOG statement on physician conscience, stating that:

“Obviously, some disagree with the federal law and would have it otherwise, so they have begun using the accreditation standards of physician professional organizations to define the exercise of conscience unprofessional and thereby make doctors choose between their capacity to practice in good standing and their right of conscience.”

If Leavitt is indeed referring to the ACOG statement and Leavitt’s idea that certification would be denied to physicians who refuse to perform abortions, this has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked. Despite this, Leavitt goes so far as to, without even a whiff of irony, refer to the medical organizations’ approach as a “clear effort to subvert the law in favor of…ideology.”

Leavitt goes on to deflect the actual concerns raised about the redefining of abortion to potentially include contraception and the redefining of human life based on non-medical public opinion to include non-implanted fertilized eggs, arguing that “This is not a discussion about the rights of a woman to get an abortion…This is about the right of a doctor to not participate if he or she chooses for reasons they consider a matter of conscience.”

He never once actually states that contraception could not be included under that umbrella of conscience. He also indicates that “It is currently a violation of three separate federal laws to compel medical practitioners to perform a procedure that violates their conscience,” leaving readers to wonder what purpose the newly proposed regulation could possibly have, but to further reduce access and broaden the scope of the definition of abortion. As one commenter notes:

“Since you are such an old hand at the abortion wars, then surely you are well aware of the anti-choice tactic of defining abortion down — the medically dubious assertion that pregnancy occurs before implantation. A great deal of the outrage over this proposed regulation centers on the potential of your department legitimizing this view under the guise of ‘protecting conscience,’ thus putting not only access to abortion, but access to necessary birth control, in jeopardy. And nothing you have said so far contradicts that.”

Perhaps most appallingly, Leavitt essentially provides a “so what?” response to the idea that women may be refused needed and legal care. He says:

“Is the fear here that so many doctors will refuse that it will somehow make it difficult for a woman to get an abortion? That hasn’t happened, but what if it did? Wouldn’t that be an important and legitimate social statement?”

Clearly, Leavitt values a “social statement” just as much as women’s access to care, while completely ignoring objections that the proposed regulation may extend that refusal of care to very basic needs such as contraception. If that doesn’t send a chill up the spine of America’s women and families, I don’t know what will.

Scott Swenson also has a powerful response to Leavitt’s post at RHRealityCheck, as does ReproHealthHub, which notes:

“Don’t federal laws already protect doctors’ rights to opt out of performing abortions? Where is this ‘serious need’ that Leavitt stresses? This seems more like a ploy to shift the focus from the medical issue of access to contraception to a theoretical, abstract notion of the rights of man and citizen. Leavitt’s hoping to come across more like a modern day Enlightenment philosophe than an anti-choice Bush appointee. It ain’t working.”

Indeed, this latest response from Leavitt makes yet another attempt to frame the issue as an abstract matter of physician conscience, while continuing to ignore the objections of many organizations to the very concrete potential effect of denying legal care to women and expanding providers’ ability to deny that care.

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