U.S. regulation stops short of defining abortion

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Health officials released a controversial regulation on Thursday to protect health professionals who do not want to provide abortions or certain other health care services.

Abortion rights demonstrators (R) share the plaza with pro-life demonstrators (L) in front of the Supreme Court to mark the 35th anniversary of Roe vs Wade, the landmark legislation which allowed abortion rights, during a rally in Washington January 22, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

The regulation could strip federal funding from employers or institutions that fire a doctor, nurse, pharmacist or other health professional who refuses to provide abortion care or information.

But it no longer defines some types of contraception as abortion, after family planning groups complained an earlier draft would have defined abortion to include birth control pills and the intrauterine device or IUD.

“This is about protecting the right of a physician to practice medicine according to his or her moral compass,” Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Michael Leavitt told reporters in a conference call. “There is nothing in this rule that would in any way change a patient’s right to a legal procedure.”

He said it enforces three existing federal laws. Those laws allow providers to opt out of offering the abortion pill RU-486 and emergency contraception.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America said the regulation was deliberately vague.

“At least they wrote a definition of abortion,” Roger Evans, director of litigation at the group, told reporters.

“It will have the same net effect, which is to set the stage for women being denied access to healthcare, women being denied information ... and women even being denied referrals,” Evans added.

He said his group would lobby to have HHS change the rule during the three-day comment period before it takes effect.

“This is just one more example of the Bush Administration putting ideology ahead of science and women’s health,” New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton said in a statement. She said she would also fight the regulation.


“People should not be forced to say or do things they believe are morally wrong. In particular, health care providers should not be forced to provide services ... against their consciences,” Leavitt said.

Federal law is “explicit and unwavering” on this, he added. “Unfortunately, many in the health care community either aren’t aware of those statutes or don’t support them.”

Recipients of certain HHS funding must show they are complying with this, and they can lose funding if they are not, he said.

One of the three laws includes the 1973 Church Amendment, proposed by then-Idaho Republican Sen. Frank Church, which barred the government from requiring health care providers to take part in abortion or sterilization procedures against their moral or religious convictions.

In 1996, section 245 of the Public Health Service Act prohibited the federal government and state or local governments that receive federal funds from discriminating against individual and institutional health care providers that refused to receive training in abortions.

The Weldon Amendment, first added in 2005, bars giving HHS funds to any state or local government or federal agency or program that discriminates against health care entities that do not provide, pay for, provide coverage of or make referrals for abortion.

Editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham