Scare quotes scare me

scarequoteThe Washington Post covered a new Bush administration rule that protects the conscience rights of health care workers. Or, as the Washington Post scare quotes it, "right of conscience." We get the scare quotes in the headline and again in the second paragraph:

The Bush administration today issued a sweeping new regulation that protects a broad range of health-care workers -- from doctors to janitors -- who refuse to participate in providing services that they believe violate their personal, moral or religious beliefs.

The controversial rule empowers federal health officials to cut off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, clinic, health plan, doctor's office or other entity if it does not accommodate employees who exercise their "right of conscience." It would apply to more than 584,000 health-care facilities.

Are the words "they believe" in the first paragraph necessary? Obviously if they didn't believe these beliefs, they wouldn't be, well, their beliefs. Right? And the regulation isn't sweeping, as the story goes on to note in great detail.

Anyway, it's not like conscience rights are previously unheard of or were just invented by Mike Leavitt, the Health and Human Services Secretary behind the ruling. So I really don't get the scare quotes. One of my best friend's parents met because her father served as a conscientious objector during Vietnam at a hospital where her mother was interning. Does the Washington Post refer to such Mennonites as "conscientious objectors" or just conscientious objectors? No scare quotes in this 2006 story. Why the difference? Is it one thing to have a conscientious objection to war and another to have a conscientious objection to abortion?

The story notes that abortion rights advocates and others condemned the regulation because it could create obstacles in the provision of abortions and other medical procedures. There's also this:

The 127-page rule is the latest in a flurry of federal regulations that the administration is implementing before President Bush's term ends, including a number that would weaken government protections for consumers and the environment.

Although the Obama administration could reverse the rule, it would require a lengthy process. Last month, however, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murphy (D-Wash.) introduced a bill to repeal the regulation legislatively.

It might be nice to have a bit of context here. It's worth noting that President Bill Clinton, upon his exit from eight years in office, set a record for the amount of regulatory activity his administration enacted in the final weeks of an administration -- 27,000 pages in November, December and January, breaking Jimmy Carter's 20-year record and representing a 51 percent increase over Clinton's normal November-January activity. How does Bush's activity compare? (And it's Patty Murray (D-Wash.), not Murphy.)

The story gets some balance in there, noting that the rule applies to entities that receive federal funds and not private entities. But what about this paragraph?:

The rule is supported by a variety of conservative groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals, the Christian Medical Association and the Family Research Council.

Is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops best described as a conservative group? And, if so, on what grounds? Catholic teaching doesn't fit nicely in conservative or liberal categories. And if we were going to force it into one or the other, I'm not sure I'd pick conservative.

Remember that lede about the new and sweeping rule? Now read these paragraphs: air_quotes

The language of the rule, which will cost more than $44 million to implement, stressed that it is primarily aimed at making sure that federal laws on the books since the 1970s are enforced and that nothing in the regulation would prevent any organization from providing any type of care.

"The ability of patients to access health care services, including abortion and reproductive health services, is long-established and is not changed in this rule," it states. "Instead, this rule implements federal laws protecting health care workers and institutions from being compelled to participate in, or from being discriminated against for refusal to participate in, health services or research activities that may violate their consciences. . . . "

Indeed, some of the comments received in response to the proposed rule were that it was unnecessary because it duplicates federal laws on the books. The story goes on to note that the rule isn't a sweeping new regulation so much as a response to recent efforts by professional medical groups that might infringe on doctor's conscience rights or, er, "conscience rights."

I'm also unsure about this paragraph:

The rule comes at a time of increasingly frequent reports of conflicts between health-care workers asserting their religious freedom and patients seeking legal treatments that some providers object to. Pharmacists have turned away women seeking birth control and morning-after pills. Infertility doctors have refused to help unmarried and lesbian women get pregnant by artificial insemination. Catholic hospitals have refused to administer the morning-after emergency contraception pill, perform abortions or treat women having miscarriages.

It is news to no one that Catholic hospitals do not perform abortions or otherwise terminate the lives of unborn children. But do Catholic hospitals really refuse to treat women who are losing their children due to miscarriage? And, if so, could we have any evidence of this? I would love to know how reporter Rob Stein came up with this. It strikes me as patently untrue. Apparently I'm not alone. This blogger wonders if Stein is using this abstract as justification:

Catholic-owned hospital ethics committees denied approval of uterine evacuation while fetal heart tones were still present, forcing physicians to delay care or transport miscarrying patients to non-Catholic-owned facilities.

In other words, Catholic-owned hospitals will treat a woman having a miscarriage but won't treat her by aborting a baby who is alive and whose heart is beating. This is not the same thing that Stein wrote. So what's his justification for what he wrote?

This is an important story but coverage of the regulation could be handled better. Hopefully other reporters and subsequent stories will do a bit better.

Note: As I'm about to post this (I wrote it last night), I see that today's follow-up story -- which has a different, updated lede -- also corrects the Murray error and removes one set of scare quotes and the bizarre miscarriage line. Both stories use the same URL, which means that the Post considers today's story to be a better version of the same story. Because yesterday's article was up throughout the day and is the story that spread throughout the blogosphere, I think it's appropriate to critique it here. Still, it's worth noting that earlier stories can improve with time.

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