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NEAL CONAN, host:

The day President Barack Obama took office, an abortion conscience clause proposed by the Bush administration took effect. The rule protects health care professionals from participating in abortions if they are morally opposed. It also extends to pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for morning-after pills or birth control.

On his second day in office, President Obama signed an executive order that changed policy on providing federal funds to organizations that advocate birth control methods other than abstinence. Then, recently, a Gallup poll released last month reported that more Americans described themselves as pro-life than pro-choice.

Between the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas and the likely focus on abortion, the next months' hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, we've asked NPR health policy correspond Julie Rovner to bring us up-to-date on these policy questions. She's here with us in Studio 3A.

Always nice to have you on the program, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Nice to be here.

CONAN: So what's changed with the Obama administration? Has it moved towards rescinding the conscience clause as it said it would?

ROVNER: Well, it's taken the first step. Now these are federal regulations. You can't just flick a switch and turn them off. So what it has done is put out for public comment.

Now, they could've actually taken another step that would've implied that they were going to rescind them, and they didn't do that. They said, let's take some more public comment.

Now, the issue with these regulations is that they affect far more than abortion and contraception. They would, indeed, affect abortion and contraception, but the way they are written is so broad that basically any healthcare professional - and I believe it would not impact the caller from earlier who was worried about filling out paperwork.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROVNER: I think you have to be a health care professional, a doctor, a nurse, a pharmacist, some - perhaps some kind of technician, who would participate in some sort of medical procedure.

And again, it would - it could involve filling a prescription, but it would have to be some sort of procedure with which they disagree. That could be an abortion. It could be filling a prescription. It could be some kind of end-of-life care. Remember in Oregon, it is legal to get pills…

CONAN: Physician-assisted suicide…

ROVNER: …physician-assisted suicide, that's right. There's particular procedures in Oregon about allowing pharmacists to opt out of that to fill those prescriptions. So it is very broadly written. There have been concerns about that.

It could be facilitating fertility for gay or lesbian couples. I mean, it really - it could go - you could - this could go out quite a long way. So there are concerns about how broadly it's written that's why they've open it for more public comment.

We're expecting some kind of ruling in July about whether these regulations will be rewritten or scrapped altogether.

CONAN: Scrapped altogether or modified in some way.

ROVNER: Right, or modified in some way. Now, I should point out that the people who are opposed to these regulations note that they are based on 30 years of law. So, if the regulations were to go away, there would still be these protections. The protections are written into law.

What the secretary of Health and Human Services said when he put out the regulations is that basically they were there to publicize the fact that these laws are on the books, to help people know what to do if they believe they've experienced a case of discrimination, that there are lots of laws that protect people. There a lot of state laws that protection people. Mostly these are cases of forced sterilization and abortion. Those are the - most of the conscience clause affect those two things.

CONAN: So if this policy change were to be made, it would have little practical effect?

ROVNER: If they were to strike these regulations from the books, it would likely have little practical effect.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What about that action on day two of the Obama administration? And that had to do with a change in policy towards providing federal funds.

ROVNER: That had an actual practical effect. That had the effect of opening up funding for international family planning organizations that participate in abortion funding or in abortion promotion. That did have some effect.

CONAN: And can we know where? Who's got money? There's been - obviously it's not been all that long since this change happened.

ROVNER: No. It has - that's mostly - this is a long-time ongoing fight. It's mostly aimed at International Planned Parenthood Federation. That's been the key organization over the years. It's been funded by Democratic presidents and Democratic congresses, and then defunded by Republican presidents and Republican congresses. And this has been going on and off.

CONAN: Going back to….

ROVNER: Right, back and forth.

CONAN: Back to the Reagan administration.

ROVNER: That's right, back to the Reagan administration.

CONAN: So - and so this is now going ahead and this Planned Parenthood International will be getting these funds?

ROVNER: I believe - I'm trying to remember what the status of the congressional money was. I believe it was - that it was passed by Congress as soon as the president lifted the restriction. So, yes, I'm pretty sure that the money is actually going there now.

CONAN: Okay. And this opinion poll that we've all heard so much about in the past a few weeks. This last month, the Gallup poll said for the first time, I think, that more Americans described themselves as pro-life than pro-choice, a suggestion by some - taken as a suggestion by some that opinion was beginning to shift significantly.

ROVNER: Yeah. You know, I've been covering abortion for 23 years now. And one of the things that's true about abortion is that it tends to be countercyclical to who's in charge. So when people - when someone is - when the Democrats - if there is a pro-choice president and, presumably, a pro-choice Congress, then people who are against abortion tend to get kind of riled up.

And when there is, you know, a pro-life president, a pro-life Congress, then people who are for abortion rights tend to get riled up. So it wouldn't be surprising that you would see sort of more of a pro-life push in opinion polls. And if you look at sort of the history of the Gallup poll on this, you would see that.

But what's most interesting about this is a poll - part of the same Gallup poll where they looked at people rather than say, are you pro-choice or pro-life, which can mean an awful lot of things.

If you look at the poll - really, if you print this out, it's on the next page, where they say, do you think abortion should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or legal in all circumstances? So this is the real question: Do you think it should be always legal, always illegal, or legal sometimes?

The number of people - the percentage of people who think it should be always legal or always illegal has barely changed since 1975. In 1975, the people who thought it should be always illegal was 21 percent, and now it's 22 percent. The people who thought it should be always legal was 22 percent, now it's 23 percent. So I mean, that's basically unchanged over, you know - what is this -35 years. And the number of people who think it should be legal sometimes, which I like to call the muddled middle, has gone from 54 percent in 1975 to 53 percent now.

So essentially, what you have is over these - you know, however many years it's been, essentially, no change in opinion on abortion. And I think that has really been just what you see these changes, these little waves of public opinion as you see policy shift over the years. But essentially, most people believe that abortion should be illegal in some circumstances and legal in other circumstances. And the biggest fight is over when.

CONAN: And that has to do with timing and so-called late abortions and all of that, which we heard on discussions earlier.

ROVNER: Absolutely. The fight is always over, you know, under what circumstances, when in pregnancy, who, whether parents should be told, you know, what kinds of, you know, reason should a woman have. But basically, the people who think abortion should be always legal or always illegal are small minorities. The majority of the American public is somewhere in the middle.

CONAN: And have to ask questions about whether events, and in this case, the murder of the abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, in Wichita the other week, whether events like that can have effects on public opinion and, indeed, on public policy.

ROVNER: Sometimes they can. We saw that, I think, during the 1990s when there was a raft of abortion clinic violence, some killings of abortion doctors and some bombings of clinics that didn't kill doctors but injured some clinic personnel. And indeed, there was a bit of - if you look at this same Gallup poll, there was a little bit of shift towards more people calling themselves pro-choice.

There was some sympathy towards, you know, women going to seek abortions and towards people who were, you know, trying to access the sort of care and a real, you know - you're seeing now certainly a lot of these anti-abortion groups trying to back away from, you know, from violence. It's like that - no that's not the right way to handle it. So that sometimes does have a real visceral reaction from people.

CONAN: And I wonder, Julie, this issue, as we mentioned, is going to be coming up. I don't think anybody actually expects Judge Sotomayor - she's never ruled in a case that involved abortion or touched on that issue. And I don't think anybody expects for her to suddenly start expounding upon it when she goes into the hearings. I guess the hearings now scheduled to start on Monday, July 13, before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Nevertheless, this has been, and I guess for the foreseeable future, is always going to be, an issue that will come up as one of the major motifs of the questions both for and against on both sides.

ROVNER: Absolutely. This is - you know, everyone likes to say there is no litmus test. But really, there's always now, on the Supreme Court, going to be a litmus test. This is a very tightly contested issue in the Supreme Court. Really, the future of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide basically by making it illegal for states to ban it, you know? And Judge Sotomayor is kind of a blank slate on this. We really don't know.

She did rule in one case that actually involved this international family planning issue that we spoke about that the president did, but it was on and she ruled on a technicality. So we really don't know what she thinks about the court right to abortion. She is Catholic, which has made some people wonder if she might also be pro-life.

So certainly, there will be ways of trying to feel her out, really looking at how she feels about the right to privacy, which…

CONAN: I was going to ask you about some of the code words that we could…

ROVNER: Exactly. That's one of the code words, how does she feel about a right to privacy, because that is what underlay the decision in Griswold v. Connecticut - which was a - issue about contraception, which was sort of the precursor to Roe. And there'll be a lot of feeling around to try and see if you can see how she feels and maybe infer what she would do in an abortion case.

CONAN: What other language would you say - your red flag will often say, aha, they're talking about abortion here.

ROVNER: Certainly, the right to privacy is the biggest one. That would be the one that you would look for. Do you think that there is a right to privacy embedded in the Constitution? That will the question that she will be asked. I don't think there's bigger red flag than that.

CONAN: And as these issues go around and around - we should mention, if she is confirmed, she would replace Justice David Souter, and this would not impact the balance that's been on the court in the past. It's been 5-4 and would remain 5-4.

ROVNER: That's right. He was as surprise, of course. He was appointed by George H.W. Bush, and he was also an unknown on abortion. And I guess it was assumed that he would be antiabortion, and he wasn't. So, it was - we're in sort of the same situation this time in terms of a judge who has kind of, you know, no record on this issue. So, there are those who will try to pry a little bit deeper.

CONAN: Has the new Obama administration rewarded its supporters? Or are they disappointed? Has it lived down to the fears of its critics?

ROVNER: I think neither. You know, one of the things that the president did as a candidate is he tried very hard to steer middle ground on this issue, to say, really, there should be a way to find peace, to find places where people who oppose and people who support abortion rights can agree on reducing pregnancy, on promoting adoption.

Of course, people who oppose abortion say that that's ridiculous, that he was one of the most, you know, pro-abortion rights candidate ever, that, you know, he voted in the state Senate in Illinois for all of these pro-abortion rights' things.

But really, you know, the president did everything, including not making that change in policy on the Roe v. Wade anniversary, which comes two days after the inauguration which most other presidents have used to make their abortion policy changes.

He didn't do that out of respect for anti-abortion people. He tried to, you know, he didn't reach out to immediately overturn these conscience regulations, but rather to take new public comments, to see if perhaps there's a way to change it, to try to…

CONAN: A middle ground.

ROVNER: …right - to at least try to find a middle ground. He's not - it's hard to find a middle ground with the abortion debate. There isn't very much of what is that Gallup poll points out, but at least, you know, because the two sides are really so far apart.

But he really is trying, and I think he's getting a little bit of grumbling from, you know, the pro-choice supporters who supported him strongly, and from the pro-life supporters who don't believe that he is ever really going to be pro-life.

CONAN: Julie Rovner, NPR's health policy correspondent, with us here in Studio 3A. We'll, of course, look forward to the Sotomayor hearings, and, well, to these new set of rulings on conscience that she expects come down in July.

Thanks very much for being with us.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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