The Obama administration is moving to overturn a controversial Bush administration policy that allows health care workers to decline to provide or participate in any service that violates their beliefs.
This is the second abortion-related policy the new administration has tackled. Last month, the president reversed the so-called Mexico City policy, which has barred U.S. foreign assistance funds to international family planning organizations that perform or in any way promote abortion.
While the Mexico City policy was longstanding, this Bush regulation Obama officials are addressing was issued only in late 2008 and took effect on the former president's last day in office.
Supporters of the regulation say it was needed to clarify protections for health care workers who do not wish to participate in abortion or abortion-related activities.
"The lack of regulations resulted in confusion and a lack of awareness within the health care community, leaving health care personnel vulnerable to discrimination and forcing them to drop their specialties at a crucial time of health care scarcity," says Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
But opponents say the regulation was written so broadly that it could allow workers to decline to participate in many other types of sensitive medical procedures — from blood transfusions to end-of-life care. And in parts of the country with few medical providers, those refusals could put patients at risk, those critics contend.
"That rule was so broad that even the cashier at Walgreens could refuse to provide medication for somebody if the cashier decided they have a religious objection," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO).
The Department of Health and Human Services will begin the process to formally rescind the regulation next week, according to Obama administration sources. But it will also call for a 30-day public comment period.
"We believe that this is a complex issue that requires a thoughtful process where all voices can be heard," said an administration source who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
The source said that following the comment period, the administration could decide to simply repeal the Bush administration rule and take no further action. Or, it could issue a new rule to further clarify existing conscience protections that have long existed in federal law.
Abortion-rights groups say they're not alarmed by the new comment period.
"At the end of the day we're confident that the administration will continue to agree that current law is really adequate in the way that it balances the rights of patients and the rights of providers," said Marilyn Keefe, who heads the reproductive rights programs for the National Partnership for Women and Families.
But anti-abortion forces also think that's the likely outcome — which is probably not what the administration intended.
"The rules as written appropriately protect pro-life health care workers," said Stephen H. Aden, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which is defending the regulation in several lawsuits that have been filed against it.
"There's no reason to reconsider them; no reason for revision." Reopening the regulation for additional comment, Aden said, is "an obvious attempt to serve special interests ... who are pushing for abortion and access to emergency contraception."