Obama Administration May Rescind 'Conscience Rule'
Officials say the move seeks to clarify rules for health care workers
WASHINGTON — Taking another step into the abortion debate, the Obama administration Friday 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 "conscience rule" comes just two months after the Bush administration announced it 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 suits challenging the Bush rule, arguing 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, the group said, a rape victim had her prescription for emergency contraception rejected by a pharmacist.
Supporters say the rule protects doctors who should not be forced to prescribe treatments such as birth control pills or the so-called morning-after pill.
President Barack Obama — a longtime supporter of abortion rights — has been expected to reverse a number of Bush-era policies restricting access to family-planning services.
But he also has been sensitive to the explosiveness of the reproductive-rights issue.
Last month, without ceremony Obama overturned a ban on U.S. funding for international aid groups that provide abortion services.
The move by the Department of Health and Human Services to throw out the conscience rule is being made equally quietly as the budget plan is made public.
Officials stressed Thursday that the administration is looking for input from people across the ideological spectrum before it finalizes the rollback 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.
Officials said the administration will consider drafting a new rule to clarify what health-care workers can reasonably refuse for patients.
For more than 30 years, federal law has allowed doctors and nurses to decline to provide abortion services as a matter of conscience, a protection that is not subject to rulemaking.
In promulgating the new rule last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said it was necessary to address discrimination in the medical field.
He criticized "an environment in the health-care field that is intolerant of individual conscience, certain religious beliefs, ethnic and cultural traditions and moral convictions."
Officials said the Obama administration's goal is to make the rule clearer.