In late August, the Bush administration proposed stronger job protections for doctors and other health care workers who refuse to participate in abortions because of religious or moral objections. Abortion foes called it a victory, but abortion rights supporters said they feared the rule could stretch the definition of abortion to include birth control.
The public comment period for the proposed rule ends Thursday. As the deadline nears, opponents have orchestrated a highly public call for the administration to rescind the rule. While the regulation states that it would not limit access to health care, groups such as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics disagreed.
They said doctors and nurses are already not required to perform abortions or sterilizations. They can refuse to do so. But each health care professional is ethically bound to inform patients about all of their treatment options. If health care professionals cannot or will not provide a certain service, they are ethically obligated to refer patients in a timely manner to someone who can.
"Implementation of this regulation would effectively allow health care providers' personal beliefs to override patients' right to full disclosure of accurate information and available health care resources," the medical associations wrote.
Separately, 13 attorneys general complained the rule was too vague about what health care procedures may be withheld.
"The proposed regulation completely obliterates the rights of patients to legal and medically necessary health care services in favor of a single-minded focus on protecting a health care provider's right to claim a personal moral or religious belief," the attorneys general said in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson said she would not "speculate" on the department's course of action.
"We have an open comment period, so I'm unable to comment on what will happen beyond here," said Pearson.
Pearson said that Secretary Mike Leavitt has written extensively on his views about the need for the rule in a series of blog posts on the department's Web site. Leavitt has said the rule is directly focused on the protection of practitioner conscience.
The states protesting the rule are Connecticut, Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont.