WASHINGTON Family planning groups and at least one member of Congress objected on Tuesday to a Bush administration memo that defines several widely used contraception methods as abortion and protects the right of medical providers to refuse to offer them.
The proposal would cut off federal funds to hospitals and states that attempt to compel medical providers to offer legal abortion and contraception services to women.
The proposal circulated to media defines abortion broadly to include many types of contraception, including birth control pills and intrauterine devices.
Health and Human Services officials declined to confirm the proposal, but noted their responsibility to protect against discrimination of doctors and pharmacists who object to abortion or birth control on religious or moral grounds.
"This proposed rule will put women's access to birth control and the information they need to make health care decisions at risk," Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.
"As a result, women's ability to manage their own health care is at risk of being compromised by politics and ideology."
A copy of a memo that appears to be an HHS draft provided to Reuters, carries a broad definition of abortion.
"The Department proposes to 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,'" it said.
Conception occurs when egg and sperm unite in the fallopian tubes. It takes three to four days before the fertilized egg implants in the uterus. Several birth control methods interfere with this, including the birth control pill and IUDs.
STATE LAWS 'TRUMPED'
The proposed rule is specifically designed to counter recent state laws enacted to ensure that women can get contraception when they want or need it.
"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," the draft reads.
"In May 2007, Connecticut passed a law requiring all hospitals to distribute Plan B to rape victims, despite religious organizations' objections to the abortifacient nature of the drug," it adds.
New York Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat, said the draft proposal goes too far.
"Federal law currently protects individuals who prefer not to provide abortion services," Lowey said in a statement.
"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," she added.
HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson said she could not comment on potential regulations.
"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," she said by e-mail.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)