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Proposed HHS rule on birth control stirs up controversy


WASHINGTON Health and Human Services may be considering a draft regulation that would classify most birth control pills, the Plan B emergency contraceptive and intrauterine devices as forms of abortion because they prevent the development of fertilized eggs into fetuses, according to published reports.

The rule, which does not require congressional approval, would allow healthcare workers who object to abortion on moral or religious grounds to refuse to counsel women on their birth control options or supply contraceptives. It would forbid more than a half-million health agencies nationwide that receive federal funds from requiring employees to provide such services. Pharmacists could use the rule as a justification for refusing to fill birth control prescriptions, and insurance companies could cite it as a basis for declining to cover the costs.

In his professional blog, HHS secretary Mike Leavitt says he has ordered the draft regulation to be rewritten with a narrower focus—specifically on allowing healthcare workers to refuse to participate in procedures they find objectionable. An “early draft of the regulations found its way into public circulation before it had reached my review,” he wrote, adding that the draft “contained words that lead some to conclude my intent is to deal with the subject of contraceptives, somehow defining them as abortion. Not true.”

Leavitt’s denials notwithstanding, the draft rule could void laws in 27 states that require insurance companies to provide birth control coverage for women requesting it. The rule also could counter laws in 14 states requiring that rape victims receive counseling and access to emergency, day-after contraceptives. It would also require federal agencies and states to provide funds for such “family planning” clinics as those that provide women with only abstinence counseling.

In response to this draft legislation, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have sent a letter to Leavitt requesting a meeting to discuss the legislation.

According to reports, Clinton and Murray’s letter says, in part, “We remain concerned by the regulations’ potential to create barriers for women seeking health care, to jeopardize federal programs that provide family planning services and to disrupt state laws securing women’s access to birth control.”

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