WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Reproductive rights advocates issued a collective condemnation Tuesday of a draft proposal by the Bush administration to set new restrictions on domestic family planning programs.

Under the draft proposal, federally funded hospitals and clinics that provide family planning services would be required to promise in writing that they will turn a blind eye to health care providers’ views on abortion and certain kinds of birth control, such as emergency contraception.

The proposed rule defines abortion as “any of the various procedures–including the prescription, dispensing 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.”

Organizations that do not comply would forfeit financial aid distributed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

If implemented, the regulations could make it more difficult for many to access information about abortion and birth control and obtain supplies and services, said Mary Jane Gallagher, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association in Washington, D.C. The regulation could also undermine state laws ensuring access to birth control, she said. And it would redefine abortion so that it includes certain kinds of birth control methods, setting a dangerous precedent.

“I’ve been around about 30 years and I’ve never seen anything quite this widely imposed,” Gallagher said.

If implemented, the rule would require family planning programs at hospitals and clinics to hire people even if they oppose abortion or birth control. In other words, health care providers would have the right to refuse to provide patients with comprehensive information about abortion or birth control even if they ask for it.

Providers could also refuse to write prescriptions for birth control or provide referrals for abortion services based on their personal beliefs, adding to a trend that is already reflected in litigation involving pharmacists around the country who argue religious freedoms in their refusal to dispense emergency contraception.

“Women’s ability to manage their own health care is at risk of being compromised by politics and ideology,” said Cecile Richards, president of the New York-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Freedom to Speak Against Abortion

Religious conservatives and anti-choice activists hailed the proposed regulation as a way to protect medical professionals’ constitutional right to freedom of speech and religious expression.

“Health care professionals must be free to follow their individual conscientious convictions on these life-and-death matters,” said Dr. David Stevens, chief executive officer of Christian Medical and Dental Associations, a 13,000-member group in Bristol, Tenn., in a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt.

“The regulations reportedly under consideration at Health and Human Services apparently would simply protect the right for all health care professionals to make professional judgments based on moral convictions and ethical standards. Protecting this right also protects patients who choose their physicians based on life-affirming values.”

A Health and Human Services spokesperson declined to respond to critics’ complaints, but said Congress has enacted similar freedom-of-conscience laws in the past.

Critics say the regulation would have far-reaching implications.

Organizations that don’t comply with the proposed rule could be forced to scale back services due to lack of funding, leaving women who rely on government-funded family-planning clinics with fewer options for affordable services and supplies, Richards said. That would compound their financial difficulties at a time of rising rates of unemployment and higher costs for food and fuel.

Superceding States’ Policies

The regulation could also undermine state laws that require hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims and that require health care insurance plans to cover contraceptives if they cover other prescription medications, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights lobby in Washington, D.C.

Leavitt is also exploring other options to protect health care providers, the Health and Human Services spokesperson said. Leavitt, for example, recently sent letters to the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Washington, D.C., expressing concern over policies that “may have forced providers to choose between compromising their personal beliefs and facing economic and professional sanctions.”

The freedom-of-conscience proposal–currently in draft form–awaits final approval from the administration. If that occurs, the administration would then file the proposal with the Federal Register, which would trigger a 30-day public comment period.

In that event, Planned Parenthood, the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association and other advocacy groups will launch a public relations campaign to drum up opposition to the proposed rule in the hopes of preventing the administration from implementing the change before it leaves office in January.

Advocates are also considering legal strategies to fight implemented regulations in court.

“Planned Parenthood will not stand by and watch the Bush administration deny quality, affordable health care and accurate information to millions of women,” Richards said.

Blocking Birth Control Access

If implemented, the proposal could expand on efforts by professionals in the health care industry who hold anti-choice views to block access to birth control.

In addition to the pharmacist refusals, anti-choice activists backed an effort by the Bush administration to delay a decision on whether to give emergency contraception over-the-counter status. The administration gave women’s rights advocates a partial victory in 2006 when it agreed to make emergency contraception available without a prescription to women 18 and older but not to younger women, often those who need it the most.

Anti-choice advocates want Bush to go further by reinstating the so-called domestic gag rule before he leaves office.

In May, the Family Research Council, an advocacy group in Holland, Mich., sent a letter to the administration urging it to reinstate the rule, which would bar U.S. family planning clinics from receiving federal aid if they provide abortions or abortion counseling among their services. It would mimic a current ban on federal funding for overseas clinics that offer similar counseling and services.

News of Bush’s latest proposal surfaced in a report in the New York Times on Tuesday, one week after Carly Fiorina, an adviser to presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, said she supported legislation to require insurance companies to cover contraception. McCain has voted against the legislation.

When asked by a Los Angeles Times reporter about Fiorina’s statement, McCain squirmed: “It’s something that I had not thought much about.”

The answer prompted NARAL’S Keenan to urge support for McCain’s Democratic rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

“McCain’s straight-talk express seems to hit a speed bump when asked about his votes against family planning and birth control,” Keenan said. “Today’s news only underscores why we need to elect pro-choice Sen. Barack Obama as our next president.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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