My Conscience Is Clear

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In my breakdown of Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, I wrote that his comments supporting a new conscience clause for health care workers–“Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women”–constituted a shift in policy. Others heard the same thing.

There’s been some, ahem, pushback at the idea that Obama has changed his position on the HHS conscience clause. Let’s take a look. Here’s the statement the White House put out in February when it announced its intent to rescind the change put through by the Bush administration in December: “President Obama has a very clear record of supporting carefully crafted conscience clause legislation. He believes this issue requires a careful balance between the rights of providers and the health of women and their families, a balance that the last-minute Bush rule appears to upset.” 

The statement leaves the clear impression that the Bush rule is unacceptable. News reports at the time were also littered with anonymous quotes from HHS and White House officials confidently advising that an announcement officially reversing the rule was forthcoming. And both religious leaders and abortion rights advocates who have spoken with White House officials tell me they were left with the clear impression that the White House considered the Bush rule unnecessary and existing conscience exceptions sufficient.

It’s nearly three months later and not only is the rule still in place, but Obama yesterday seemed to vow that his administration would draft a new conscience exception–that is, in addition to the law as it existed pre-December 2008. If that’s not a change of position for Obama himself, at the very least it indicates that his staff jumped the gun in assuming the conscience rule would be just another rollback for the new president, like the Mexico City policy and stem-cell funding guidelines.