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Workers' Religious Freedom vs. Patients' Rights

HHS officials declined to discuss the draft, saying it is in the very early stages of review. But HHS issued a statement that reads in part:

"Over the past three decades, Congress has passed several anti-discrimination laws to protect institutional and individual health care providers participating in federal programs. HHS has an obligation to enforce these laws, and is exploring a number of options."

The draft states that numerous cases have been reported of health-care workers being "required to violate their consciences by providing or assisting in the provision of controversial medicine or procedures." It adds that many states have recently passed laws requiring health plans to pay for contraception, pharmacists to fill prescriptions for birth control, and hospitals to offer Plan B to women who have been raped.

"In general, the Department is concerned that the development of an environment in the health care industry that is intolerant of certain religious beliefs, ethnic and cultural traditions, and moral convictions may discourage individuals from underrepresented and diverse backgrounds from entering health care professions," the document states.

The regulation would require any entity receiving HHS funding to certify that it does not discriminate against organizations or individuals who do not want to provide services they consider objectionable.

The most controversial section defines abortion as "any of the various procedures -- including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action -- that results in the termination of life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation."

That definition would include most forms of hormonal birth control and the IUD, which most major medical groups believe do not constitute abortion because they primarily affect ovulation or fertilization and not an embryo once it has implanted in the womb.

The regulation would apply to anyone who participates in "any activity with a logical connection to a procedure, health service or health service program, or research activity. . . . This includes referral, training and other arrangements of the procedure, health service, or research activity."

If the administration decides to adopt the regulation, it would undergo public comment and further review before becoming final.

Critics argue that the broad definitions of abortion and the types of workers who could object would cover everyone from the top doctor at a hospital to the janitor.

Cecile Richards of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America said, "At a time when access to health care is at an all-time low, the idea that the Bush administration would be creating more barriers is frankly incredible."

The regulation could trump dozens of state laws that require health plans to cover birth control, pharmacists to fill prescriptions for contraceptives, and hospitals to offer emergency contraception to women who have been raped, critics said.

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