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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News. The Bush administration may be in its waning days, but it's still making key policy decisions. One new rule in particular has women's rights and medical groups furious. Administration officials say they want to protect medical personnel with moral objections to abortions from having to participate in them. But critics warn the new rule could jeopardize women's access to all types of medical care including basic birth control. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: Sandy Christiansen is an obstetrician-gynecologist from Frederick, Maryland. Christiansen said she was discriminated against during her training in Philadelphia in the late 1990s because she declined for religious reasons to perform elective abortions.

D: Now, I realized that I really missed learning opportunities simply because of my values. I noticed that one of my fellow interns was frequently getting the privilege of scrubbing in on gynecologic cases, and I asked my chief resident and said I was interested myself and she said, well, your colleague has been working hard doing the abortions, and earned this privilege, whereas you refused to do this, and so you don't get the perk.

ROVNER: Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says he issued the regulation because he'd heard too many stories like Sandy Christiansen's. The rules not only seek to ensure that doctors, nurses and even entire hospitals can't be discriminated against for not providing care that violates their religious beliefs, it also gives them the right not to refer patients to other health care providers who will offer that care. Christiansen, who now works in a clinic for pregnant women that neither performs nor refers for abortion, agrees such protections are needed.

D: Those of us who would not refer for procedures, etc. that they wouldn't perform themselves would not ask another person to do that.

ROVNER: Laws dating back to the early 1970s already protect doctors and nurses from being required to participate in abortions if it violates their religious beliefs. But opponents of the rule worry it's written so broadly that it covers far more than abortion. Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton told Leavitt that in person in a meeting in the Capitol earlier this week.

BLOCK: He has a clear idea that he wants to provide support to providers who do not wish to participate in or perform abortions, but the regulation can be read as going much further than that, and I'm particularly concerned about contraception.

ROVNER: In particular, many groups, including the 13 state attorneys general, are worried the regulation could override state laws requiring victims of sexual assault be offered emergency contraception - the so-called morning-after pill. It can prevent pregnancy in most cases if taken within 72 hours. Since the pill can work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, some people consider that a type of abortion. But the same can be true of other forms of birth control pills. And Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says it's not just birth control and abortion at issue but any potentially controversial medical technique or drug.

BLOCK: If every pharmacist in this country decided what they were and weren't going to dispense, to anyone who walked in, this kind of goes on forever.

ROVNER: But HHS Secretary Leavitt says he decided to keep the regulation vague on purpose.

BLOCK: I chose deliberately in the proposed rule not to try and redefine things differently than they are in the statute already because I want this to be about protecting the right of a doctor or a nurse who is being asked to perform a procedure that they find morally objectionable to be able to say I don't want to do that and not be discriminated against.

ROVNER: Leavitt says he plans to make the rule final before he leaves office. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama says he'll cancel it if he's elected. Republican candidate John McCain has so far declined to say what he'll do. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: You're listening to All Things Considered.

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