NEW YORK (AP) -- In Congress and states nationwide, pro-life activists are broadening efforts to support hospitals, doctors and pharmacists who -- citing moral grounds -- want to opt out of services linked to abortion and emergency contraception.
A little-noticed provision cleared the House of Representatives last week that would prohibit local, state or federal authorities from requiring any institution or health care professional to provide abortions, pay for them, or make abortion-related referrals, even in cases of rape or medical emergency.
In Mississippi, a bill became law in July that admirers and critics consider the nation's most sweeping "conscience clause." It allows all types of health care workers and facilities to refuse performing virtually any service to which they object on moral or religious grounds.
And in states across the country, pro-life organizations and a group called Pharmacists for Life are encouraging pharmacists to refuse to distribute emergency contraceptives, which they consider a potential form of abortion.
"We've seen increasing organization and networking to get more pharmacists to refuse to provide EC -- not just in the Bible Belt, but all over," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life, was fired by Kmart in 1996 for refusing to dispense a birth control drug. She believes momentum now favors her movement.
"More people, including pharmacists, are becoming informed how certain drugs operate -- and those who want to avoid ending the life of a human being would avoid those drugs," she said.
Miss Brauer, who lives in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and works at a drugstore in Ohio, hopes more states will emulate Mississippi, South Dakota and Arkansas by specifying that pharmacists, as well as doctors, have the right to withhold services on moral grounds.
At the federal level, abortion rights groups are alarmed by the provision that cleared the House last week, broadening protections for hospitals and insurers that seek to avoid any involvement with abortions. The provision would prevent government officials from using any coercive means -- such as a funding cutoff or permit denial -- to ensure abortion-related services are available.
Two years ago, the House passed a bill with the same goals, but it died in the Senate without a vote. Pro-life activists are pleased because the revived proposal was sent to the Senate as part of a broader appropriations bill and, at minimum, will go to a House-Senate conference committee.
Opponents say the provision's impact would be felt primarily by women with low incomes who depend on federally subsidized health care and use Roman Catholic hospitals. According to the critics, the measure would enable hospitals to refuse to provide abortions, or referrals, even if a pregnant woman had been raped or was in critical medical condition.
"That the U.S. Congress would be so callous as to add this kind of provision -- that affects only poor women in the most extreme circumstances -- is outrageous," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.
Miss Kissling said she was heartened by developments in some states -- such as a California Supreme Court ruling that Catholic Charities of Sacramento must provide birth control options in its employee health plan.
"But for women in conservative states, that's no help," she said.