Women's Health Debate Reaches Boiling Point

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.

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