President Obama has began the process of rescinding a last-minute rule by George W. Bush that strengthened legal protections for health care workers who refuse to perform abortions because of religious or moral objections.
With this latest move pleasing pro-choice advocates and angering pro-lifers, the Obama administration early next week will open a 30-day period for public comment on its intentions to reverse the policy, a Health and Human Services (HHS) senior official said Friday on the condition of anonymity because the comment period hasn't started.
The rule, enacted Jan. 20 - the final day of President Bush's administration - prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and other health care workers who refuse to perform or assist in abortions, sterilizations or other medical procedures because of "religious beliefs or moral convictions."
The regulation was challenged almost immediately in federal court by several states and medical groups. States worried the new rule would trump state laws protecting patient access to birth control, abortion and medical care.
Friday reports of the impending action drew praise from pro-choice advocates and consternation from pro-life and conservative groups.
"For President Obama to do this would be a huge blow to religious freedom and First Amendment rights," said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative Christian think tank. "No one should be forced to have an abortion, and no one should be forced to be an abortionist in violation of their religious or ethical convictions."
The "provider conscience regulations" instituted by the Bush administration were intended to strengthen existing federal laws that prohibit institutions from discriminating against individuals who refuse to participate in abortions or provide a referral for one. The former administration also said the rule was needed to ensure that federal money doesn't flow to providers who violate those laws.
But critics of the updated rule said it is too vague and cumbersome and could lead to patients being denied needed services and medical treatment, including birth control, HIV testing and treatment, and mental health services.
Opponents also said the Bush administration rule could be extended in its application to pharmacists who refuse to sell contraceptions or other medications and devices they morally oppose.
"President Obama's action today to move forward in repealing this rule reinforces why elections matter and how new leadership can end divisive policies that harm women," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "President Obama has signaled his intent to honor the public's call for a focus on common-sense, common-ground solutions that make a difference in the lives of women and their families."
Capitol Hill lawmakers Friday quickly responded to the administration's pending action.
"The refusal rule was written so broadly that it would allow anyone working in health care to refuse to provide legal health care services or medications to any patient - without regard to the needs of the patient," said Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee - which has jurisdiction over health care legislation - said he was pleased that the "administration is taking another look at this rule."
"Many health organizations and professional societies expressed concern about the confusion and barriers the rule would create for patients, and President Obama listened," he said.
But House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana called the administration's pending action "disturbing."
"Reversing the conscience regulation is the latest in a series of actions President Obama has taken to weaken protections for the unborn," he said.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said reversing the Bush-era rule would infringe upon the rights of religious-affiliated hospitals and clinics, and would lead to more abortions.
"This is the third action taken by Washington Democrats in the past 38 days to weaken American rules that are meant to safeguard the sanctity of human life," Mr. Boehner said. "It is an action that will hurt faith-based health providers and hospitals throughout our nation who are committed to caring for Americans at this critical time."
Mr. Obama last month reversed the "Mexico City policy" that prohibited the federal government from funding groups that perform or promote abortions in other countries.
Capitol Hill Republicans also have complained of Democratic efforts to block pro-life amendments from being included in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill passed by the House this week.
The administration will review comments from the public before making a final decision on whether to rescind the rule, though the regulation isn't expected to survive.
But the administration has vowed to continue to protect the rights of health care workers who refuse to participate in procedures to which they morally object.
"We recognize and understand that some providers have objections to providing abortions. We want to ensure that current law protects them," the HHS official said. "But we do not want to impose new limitations on services that would allow providers to refuse to provide to women and their families services like family planning and contraception."