WASHINGTON – Taking another step into the abortion debate, President Barack Obama’s administration today will move to rescind a controversial rule that allows health care workers to deny abortion counseling or other family planning services if doing so would violate their moral beliefs, according to administration officials.
The rollback of the so-called “conscience rule” comes just two months after George W. Bush’s administration announced it late last year in one of its final policy initiatives.
The new administration’s action seems certain to stoke ideological battles between supporters and opponents of abortion rights over the responsibilities of doctors, nurses and other medical workers to their patients.
Seven states, including California, Illinois and Connecticut, as well as two family planning groups, have filed lawsuits challenging the Bush rule. They argue that it sacrifices the health of patients to religious beliefs of medical providers.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has reported cases, such as that of a Virginia mother of two who became pregnant because she was denied emergency contraception. In Texas, according to the group, a rape victim found her prescription for emergency contraception rejected by a pharmacist.
Supporters of the rule say it protects doctors who should not be forced to prescribe treatments like birth control pills or the so-called morning-after pill.
Obama – a longtime supporter of abortion rights – has been expected to reverse a number of Bush’s policies restricting access to family planning services.
But the new president also has been very sensitive to the explosiveness of the reproductive rights issue.
Last month, Obama quietly overturned a controversial ban on U.S. funding for international aid groups that provide abortion services.
The move by his Department of Health and Human Services to throw out the conscience rule is being made equally quietly as most lawmakers focus on Obama’s blockbuster budget plan.
On Thursday officials stressed that the administration is looking for input from people across the ideological spectrum before it finalizes the roll-back after the standard 30-day comment period.
“We believe that this is a complex issue that requires a thoughtful process where all voices can be heard,” said one official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the policy change.
The officials said the administration will consider drafting a new rule to clarify what health care workers can reasonably refuse to do for their patients.
In promulgating the rule last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said it was necessary to address discrimination in the medical field.
But critics complained the language of the rule is overly broad, covering any “activity related in any way to providing medicine, health care and other service relative to health and welfare.”
Obama officials said the administration’s goal is to make the rule clearer rather than force doctors to provide abortions.