Federal regulations that hundreds of thousands of people fear will stifle women's access to reproductive health care were proposed Thursday after months of speculation.
The Department of Health and Human Services today announced the proposed rule that touches on the hot-button subject of abortion rights, a day after more than a quarter of a million people voiced objections to an earlier draft of the government proposal.
In less than one week, more than 325,000 people signed a petition objecting to the government proposal, Planned Parenthood and MoveOn.org said Wednesday.
The people who signed the petition circulated by Planned Parenthood and MoveOn.org are up in arms over the administration's proposal that first surfaced as a draft earlier than intended this summer.
Those who signed the petition asked the Department of Health and Human Services not to alter the rules for how federal funds are doled out to health care providers.
"Our opinion is that this drastically impacts women's health care and their access to birth control and actually takes some forms of birth control and interprets them as abortion, particularly hormonal birth control," said Ellen Golombek, vice president of external affairs for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a Wednesday news conference.
The HHS proposal says more regulations are needed to prevent those who refuse to hire doctors and nurses opposed to abortion rights from receiving federal funds. The proposal stresses that according to current laws, doctors and nurses who oppose the right to abortion cannot be discriminated against for their personal beliefs on women's health.
On Thursday, HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt said it would give doctors and nurses more freedom to follow their conscience.
"The basic idea is that people should not be forced to say or do things they believe are morally wrong," Leavitt said Thursday. "In particular, health care providers should not be forced to perform services they feel violate their own conscience."
He also said, "I'd like to stress one thing: Nothing in the new regulation in any way changes a patient's right to any legal procedure."
The Issue of Contraception
But Golombek said Wednesday that the draft regulation "would allow providers to withhold critical health care information without telling their patients."
As a result, those angry about the proposal also say it muddies the line between abortion and contraception, and they read it as an opening for health care providers to more often refuse to prescribe birth control and other forms of contraception and limit women's health care options.
"I was completely shocked that now, three years after it had happened to me, we're coming back to this," said Megan Kelly Wednesday. Kelly is an Illinois mother who has spoken out against her pharmacy's resistance to filling her birth control.
After she was told she could not receive her monthly prescription or an emergency prescription, Kelly recalled Wednesday that "I would never even have thought that this was an option."
"The pharmacist clearly said to me that she would not fill either of my prescriptions because of her personal belief," she said.
Many states have passed their own laws outlining circumstances in which doctors and pharmacies must fill prescriptions for birth control. The debate about whether federal law can trump state law, in this case regarding women's health, is playing out in courtrooms all the way up to the Supreme Court. The fear among groups such as Planned Parenthood and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association is that the document suggests an effort to change the nation's law is well under way.
But Leavitt said Thursday that "this regulation is not about contraception. It's about abortion and conscience." He also said that unlike the earlier draft, the proposal does not include a definition of abortion.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund and MoveOn.org delivered boxes filled with the signed petitions to HHS Wednesday afternoon.
Contraception Controversy Brews in Washington
The HHS said that the early draft of the proposal was not meant for the public and was leaked out while the administration was still in the process of writing the rule.
But in mid-July, the HHS draft sparked uproar when it circulated on Capitol Hill.
On July 22, 57 groups wrote a letter to Leavitt opposing the draft regulation.
"If implemented, these regulations may pre-empt state laws that protect women's access to health care and undermine the nation's fragile network of safety net providers that serve low income women," the letter said.
But in his Aug. 11 blog post, Leavitt said the intent of the draft was not to limit women's access to health care.
"The issue I asked to be addressed in this regulation is not abortion or contraceptives but the legal right medical practitioners have to practice according to their conscience, and patients should be able to choose a doctor who has beliefs like his or hers," Leavitt said in his post.
He further wrote, "An early draft of the regulations found its way into public circulation before it had reached my review. It contained words that lead some to conclude my intent is to deal with the subject of contraceptives, somehow defining them as abortion. Not true."
By mid-August, the debate had taken yet another stinging tone.
Leavitt wrote on Aug. 14, "I'm delighted to announce that with the help of Planned Parenthood, my blog -- for the first time -- received more visits than my teenage son's MySpace page."
Today begins a 30-day public comment period on the proposed regulation, after which time the administration will review comments and consider a final regulation.
ABC News' Brian Hartman contributed to this report.