U.S. issues controversial abortion “conscience” rule

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government published a rule on Thursday that it defined as protecting the conscience of health care workers but which opponents call a thinly veiled attempt to deny legal abortion and contraception services to women.

At least one member of Congress said she would immediately introduce legislation to reverse the regulation, which will take effect in 30 days under a process that bypasses federal laws.

The Health and Human Services Department said the rule merely reflected several laws that have already been passed by Congress.

“Over the past three decades, Congress enacted several statutes to safeguard the freedom of health care providers to practice according to their conscience,” HHS said in a statement.

“The new regulation will increase awareness of, and compliance with, these laws,” it added.

“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.

The rule, published in the Federal Register here, will take effect just two days before a new administration takes over with Barack Obama’s swearing-in.

“It is outrageous that one of the Administration’s final actions on the way out the door will be harmful to women’s health,” said New York Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey.

“This rule would allow health care providers to refuse to provide birth control, or even information and counseling about birth control, to women who need it. When Congress reconvenes in January, I will work with my colleagues and with the Obama Administration to reverse this damaging rule,” Lowey said.

Members of Congress, women’s groups, abortions rights groups and others have been protesting against the proposed regulation since it was proposed in August. Debra Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women & Families, said HHS implemented the regulation anyway.

“In doing so, it ignored an avalanche of comments from the medical, legal, women’s and other communities — and from its own EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) urging a stop to these regulations,” Ness said in a statement.

“Reproductive health care is primary care for most women. The regulations the Administration finalized today will make it easier for providers to refuse patients vital health services, and harder for patients to learn about their health status and options,” Ness said.

(Reporting by Maggie Fox: Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and David Storey)


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