Last Gasp: Mike Leavitt’s final stand playing federal-government nanny. | Miscellaneous | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Last Gasp: Mike Leavitt’s final stand playing federal-government nanny. 

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It’s mad scramble time. The End cometh. With just four months left in the Bush administration, presidential minions are leaping over each other to dump dogma on America before Inauguration Day 2009.

A leader of the pack in this race against time: Utah’s own Michael O. Leavitt, former 2.75-term governor and current Secretary of Health and Human Services [HHS]. Like most bedrock conservatives, Leavitt is determined to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Not likely to accomplish that any time soon, he’s satisfied to chip away at the right to abortion by throwing up any feasible roadblock to women trying to make difficult personal decisions in family planning.

Leavitt is moving at hyperspeed, hoping to tighten up federal laws that allow health-care providers who morally reject abortion to opt out of performing them. Known as “claims of conscience laws,” they have been in place for 30 years. While the laws have presented a classic case of friction between protected conscience and a woman’s right to choose, both sides in the abortion battle have come to understand that medical professionals whose values clash with abortion shouldn’t be compelled to perform one.

Then, on Aug. 21, Leavitt proposed a federal rule change that would significantly amp up government involvement in women’s reproductive decisions. If adopted by HHS, the rule would require nearly 600,000 employers in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes to certify in writing they are following the claims of conscience laws and not discriminating against people who refuse to take part in abortions.

But the government wants even more leverage. Leavitt also hopes to expand the pool of health-care providers who can refuse to do abortions. Originally, the conscience laws applied to doctors and nurses—those directly involved in the procedures. The amended version would encompass clinic assistants—people who clean and sterilize equipment, for instance—and those who might be asked merely for a referral to abortion services.

I’ll go ahead now and ask why anyone who so deeply abhors abortion would take a job in a clinic that performs abortions. If you consider stripping in a bar to be morally reprehensible, would you look for work at Trails men’s club? I know, I know. I’m asking for common sense from an administration that has rejected it for nearly eight years. Bush’s people won’t rest until they leave their neocon mark on every corner of American life. And Leavitt is on a roll.

In his HHS blog, Leavitt has posted three times in the past month on the proposed rule change. He notes in an Aug. 11 post that of 850 responses, HHS screeners killed about 25 that “violated our rules because they contained what the reviewers described to me as ‘profane language or personal attacks on your body parts, religion or family.’”

You may remember Leavitt as the governor who held what key staff members came to know as “early-morning seminary meeting sessions” in the tax-funded Governor’s Mansion. They laced policy discussions and tweaked his speeches with references to the Book of Mormon and another LDS holy text, The Doctrine & Covenants. Not surprising, then, that Leavitt is deeply concerned with threading similar themes through his government-funded blog. He wonders aloud in the same Aug. 11 post why family-planning advocates would have any anxiety over his proposal. “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?”

Will Carlson, public policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, says the civil-rights organization has “always tried to support the policy of access to reproductive health care and doctors’ right to practice freedom of belief and conscience. The ACLU has always supported a health-care provider’s right to speak out against abortion if that’s how they feel. They have had that right.”

But HHS is going too far, he adds. “It does seem to be an odd time for coming up with new regulations with less than five months left. We see this as a final salvo of the Bush administration to put limits on reproductive freedom.”

In Utah, the target provider of abortion and contraceptives is that favorite right-wing whipping girl, Planned Parenthood. The agency gets federal funding through various grants and would be clearly affected by a change in the rules. “It could interfere with Planned Parenthood’s ability to make hiring decisions,” Carlson says. A person not directly involved in performing an abortion, say, someone whose job it is to change bed linens, could disagree with abortion and claim job discrimination as a result, he says.

The clock is ticking down. By law, HHS must provide a public comment period, which ends Sept. 20. You can file a comment electronically, by e-mailing to, or by snail mail to this address: Office of Public Health and Science, Dept. of Health and Human Services, Attention: Brenda Destro, Hubert H. Humphrey Building, 200 Independence Ave., S.W., Room 728E, Washington, D.C., 20201.

It’s Mike Leavitt’s last stand at playing federal-government nanny. If he’s gone too far for your satisfaction, let him know it.


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