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The Bush administration wants to strengthen protection for health care professionals who refuse to perform abortions. It's proposed a rule that would make it easier for them to refuse to take part for moral or religious reasons. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt described the new regulation in a conference call with reporters.

Secretary MIKE LEAVITT (Department of Health and Human Services): The basic idea is that people should not be forced to say or to do things they believe are morally wrong. In particular, health care professionals should not be forced to provide services that violate their own conscience.

SHAPIRO: There are already federal laws to do that. The new rule would bolster them and require doctors and hospitals that take federal funding to certify that their employees can opt out of abortions.

Leavitt said the rule also will make it easier for health care professionals who feel they face retaliation to file a complaint.

Secretary LEAVITT: Freedom of expression and action are unfit barter for admission to medical employment or training.

SHAPIRO: Leavitt said the proposed rule dropped controversial language that existed in an earlier draft. Critics said that earlier wording would have defined some common methods of birth control as abortion and it would have allowed pharmacists and health care providers to refuse to supply emergency contraception.

Roger Evans of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America is still unhappy. He says the proposed rule is too vague, and it could expand what constitutes a moral objection to providing treatment.

Mr. ROGER EVANS (Planned Parenthood Federation of America): By leaving the term abortion undefined, the regulations create all sorts of space for ideology and political views to insinuate themselves into medical practices, emergency rooms and clinics all across the country. And when that happens, women will suffer.

SHAPIRO: One concern is that doctors would deny treatment to gays and lesbians. Just this week, the California Supreme Court ruled against two fertility doctors who invoked religious belief as a reason to refuse to provide artificial insemination to lesbian patients.

But the new rule was praised by groups who say medical professionals who do oppose abortion have little protection to follow their moral beliefs. Deirdre McQuade, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said some have left medical specialties where they care for women and children — and better protection could reverse that.

Ms. DEIRDRE MCQUADE (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): In a field where we're already losing a disproportionate number of doctors, this would enable them not only to stay, but also maybe recruit more doctors who are highly qualified and can provide quality care to their patients.

SHAPIRO: The Bush administration is under time pressure to get the rules finalized, with the end of the administration five months away. There is now a 30-day public comment period before the rule can be final.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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