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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Legislators, Advocates Respond To Potential Federal Rule That Could Limit Birth Control Access

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Legislators, Advocates Respond To Potential Federal Rule That Could Limit Birth Control Access
[July 16, 2008]

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and several family planning advocates on Tuesday responded to a regulation being developed by the Bush administration that would effectively allow abortion to be defined to include commonly used contraceptive methods and would protect the rights of medical providers who refused to offer them, Reuters reports.

"Federal law currently protects individuals who prefer not to provide abortion services," Lowey said in a statement, adding, "This draft regulation would significantly expand the definition of abortion to include birth control for the purpose of conscience clause exemptions. By trumping state laws that guarantee women's access to prescription contraceptives, this policy would encourage health care institutions seeking to limit access to birth control."

According to Reuters, a copy of an HHS' draft regulation would define abortion as "any of the various procedures -- including the prescription and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action -- that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation." The draft would require all recipients of funding from HHS to certify they will not refuse to hire health care workers who object to abortion and certain types of birth control.

According to Reuters, the rule is designed specifically to counter state laws recently enacted to ensure that women have access to contraception when they need it. The draft reads, "Despite the fact that several conscience statutes protecting health care entities from discrimination have been in existence for decades, recent events suggest the public and people in the health care industry are largely uninformed of the protections," adding, "In May 2007, Connecticut passed a law [PA 07-24] requiring all hospitals to distribute [the emergency contraceptive] Plan B to rape victims, despite religious organizations' objections to the abortifacient nature of the drug" (Fox, Reuters, 7/15).

To receive funding under any program administered by HHS, researchers, clinics, medical schools and hospitals would have to sign "written certifications" that they will not discriminate against people who object to abortion or certain contraception. The certification also would be required of state and local governments when allocating grants to hospitals and other institutions that have policies against providing abortions (Daily Women's Health Policy Report, 7/15).

Advocate Reaction, HHS Response

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said, "This proposed rule will put women's access to birth control and the information they need to make health care decisions at risk." She added, "As a result, women's ability to manage their own health care is at risk of being compromised by politics and ideology" (Reuters, 7/15).

According to Jill Morrison, senior counsel of the National Women's Law Center, the measure "is essentially a hit list against anything that protects a patient's rights to get access to legal and needed health services" related to reproductive health. She said that the purpose of the proposed rule appears to be to blur the line between abortion and contraception as Bush leaves office, which would in effect broaden the definition of abortion and restrict access to procedures that fit the new definition. "Everywhere in federal law contraception is contraception, and abortion is abortion," Morrison said, adding, "What this does is take the extra step of trying to conflate the two. It's an attack on a woman's right to contraception" (Gerstenzang, "Countdown to Crawford," Los Angeles Times, 7/15).

Christina Pearson, a spokesperson for HHS, said she could not comment on potential regulations but in an e-mail wrote, "I would note that, over the past three decades, Congress has passed several anti-discrimination laws to protect institutional and individual health care providers participating in federal programs" (Reuters, 7/15).