July 17, 2008 -- Congressional Democrats are criticizing the Bush administration for a draft proposal they say would change the definition of abortion and limit women's access to contraception.
The draft proposal from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which began circulating around Capitol Hill earlier this week, would withhold government funds from health-care providers and organizations that don't hire people who refuse to perform abortions or provide certain types of birth control.
It immediately incited an uproar from leading Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
Sens. Clinton and Patty Murray, D-Wash., warned in a letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt that the proposal has the "potential to affect millions of women's reproductive health."
"One of the most troubling aspects of the proposed rules is the overly-broad definition of 'abortion,'" write Clinton and Murray. "This definition would allow health-care corporations or individuals to classify many common forms of contraception — including the birth control pill, emergency contraception and IUDs — 'abortions' and therefore to refuse to provide contraception to women who need it.
"As a consequence, these draft regulations could disrupt state laws securing women's access to birth control. They could jeopardize federal programs like Medicaid and Title X that provide family-planning services to millions of women. They could even undermine state laws that ensure survivors of sexual assault and rape receive emergency contraception in hospital emergency rooms," they write.
Current federal law prohibits health-care providers and organizations from discriminating against people who won't provide abortions or birth control.
The Bush administration's new draft proposal would require these agencies to certify in writing their compliance with the law before getting funding from HHS.
Critics say the proposal would limit women's access to birth control, arguing that it includes "an overly-broad definition of abortion" and that in order to receive government funding agencies might have to hire employees who won't perform every-day job responsibilities due to their personal religious beliefs.
Prominent Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have already expressed their opposition to the controversial potential proposal.
"If the administration goes through with this draft proposal, it will launch a dangerous assault on women's health," said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling on President Bush to "reject this policy."
"The majority of Americans oppose this out-of-touch position that redefines contraception as abortion and represents a sustained pattern of the Bush administration to reject medical and sound science in favor of a misguided ideology that has no place in our government."
The Health department released a brief statement arguing that it's looking into various options in an effort to enforce anti-discrimination laws.
"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 statement reads.
The White House declined to comment.
"We don't talk about possible proposed rules," White House deputy spokesperson Tony Fratto said Thursday.
A spokesperson for Murray said that the two senators have not yet received a response from the Health and Human Services Secretary.