The Bush administration is proposing a rule that defines abortion so broadly that it even includes prescribing or dispensing birth control pills. The rule would likely make it harder for many women to obtain legal contraceptives. It should be scrapped.
A draft regulation circulating at the Department of Health and Human Services might not appear, on the surface, so threatening. It would cut off federal funds to hospitals and states that try to compel medical providers to offer legal abortion services to women.
The wording is what's troubling. It defines abortion to include a number of commonly used birth control methods, including pills, IUDs and emergency contraceptives. It says abortion is “any of 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.” Several common birth control methods, including pills, can interfere with implantation in addition to ovulation.
While federal law already ensures that doctors, hospitals and health plans can't be forced to perform abortions if they have religious or ethical objections, this regulation would apparently let providers also refuse to dispense birth control.
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It appears specifically designed to undermine recent state laws enacted to ensure that women can get contraception when they want or need it. Opponents say the proposed rule would let a medical worker's beliefs trump a patient's rights to birth control.
The problem can be most acute for women in small towns or rural areas, where the number of doctors and pharmacies is limited. Without a legally protected right to birth control, those women may be denied a perfectly legal medical product if the only doctor or pharmacist in town doesn't believe in birth control or believes emergency contraception to be a form of abortion.
Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Hillary Clinton of New York, as well as Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, all Democrats, have urged HHS to reconsider the regulation, saying it goes too far.
We suspect President Bush's anti-abortion appointees at HHS hoped to sneak this ridiculous measure into place before they depart Washington in a few months. They should be ashamed.
And the proposed regulation should die a swift death.