U.S. News

Groups sue government over abortion rule

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two abortion rights groups filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the U.S. government, asking a federal court to invalidate a rule the Bush administration says protects health care workers who do not believe in abortion.

Attorneys general of Connecticut, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island filed a similar challenge to the Department of Health and Human Services rule.

The regulation bans governments or organizations that receive federal funds from discriminating against providers who invoke their consciences in refusing to provide abortion-related medical services or information.

Opponents say the rule, published in December, is an attempt to deny legal abortion and contraception services to women.

“The midnight regulation, issued by the outgoing Bush administration, poses a serious threat to women’s health care by limiting the rights of patients to receive complete and accurate health information and services,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood of Connecticut said in a joint statement.

They filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, saying the rule would allow medical professionals, pharmacists and even clerks to deny women contraception and abortion services and information on the basis of their own personal beliefs.

“We filed this lawsuit today on behalf of the millions of women whose health care has been put in jeopardy by the Bush administration’s parting shot at women’s health,” Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a statement.

HHS has said the rule merely reflected several laws that have already been passed by Congress.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said at the time.

Members of Congress, women’s groups, abortion rights groups and others have been protesting against the regulation since it was proposed in August.

“The complaint charges that the final regulation goes far beyond the intent of Congress when it enacted the laws in question,” Planned Parenthood said.

Some members of Congress have also said they would work on legislation to counteract the rule.

“The courts must strike down this unconscionable, unconstitutional last-minute midnight rule, a final swipe by the Bush administration at women’s health rights,” Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in a statement.

“The federal government is impermissibly interfering with carefully crafted and balanced state measures protecting patients and women, particularly rape victims who may require immediate access to emergency contraception.”

Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Cynthia Osterman