With just a few months left in office, President Bush is still doing the bidding of social conservatives who oppose women's reproductive freedoms. Under the guise of rules to protect antiabortion nurses and doctors from discrimination in hiring, a proposed new regulation would expand the definition of abortion to include any form of contraception that can work by stopping implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. This can include common birth-control pills, emergency contraception, and the intra-uterine device, or IUD. Doctors who refuse to perform abortions for reasons of personal conscience already are protected by law.
The potential impact of this new rule on the more than 500,000 hospitals, family planning clinics, and medical offices that receive any form of federal funding could be dramatic. The rule could also undercut many state laws - including one in Massachusetts requiring hospitals to provide emergency contraception for rape victims - and laws requiring prescription drug insurance plans to include contraceptives. Massachusetts passed such a law in 2002.
The draft proposed rule highlights the fact that many antiabortion groups also oppose one good method of preventing the unplanned pregnancies that lead to abortions - birth control. At some point in their lives, 98 percent of US women use birth control.
The proposed rule, while claiming to protect the rights of nurses and doctors, would interfere with patients' rights. A woman seeking treatment could be denied birth control and not even be aware that the service was available - only denied to her because of the unexpressed personal beliefs of the practitioner.
Last November, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said gynecologists must provide "accurate and unbiased information" to patients and "have the duty to refer patients in a timely manner to other providers" if the doctors do not want to perform an abortion or prescribe birth control. The US secretary of health and human services, Michael Leavitt, said he thought this statement went too far in forcing doctors to choose between their beliefs and the prospect of professional sanctions.
The administration does not need approval of Congress to put this rule into effect. But about 100 members of the House, including all representatives from this state except Stephen Lynch of South Boston, have signed a letter protesting it. In the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington and Hillary Clinton of New York are leading the opposition. The administration should take heed and drop its ideological attack on contraception.