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New rules protect health workers opposed to abortion

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 21, 2008 - The Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday that it would put new rules in place in 30 days to take away funding from more than 584,000 hospitals, clinics, health plans, doctors' offices and providers if they refuse to accommodate workers personal, moral or religious objections.

"People should not be forced to say or do things they believe are morally wrong," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said. "Health-care workers should not be forced to provide services that violate their violates their own conscience."

The new rules do not include the most controversial language contained in an earlier draft, which had defined abortion as anything that interfered with an egg after it was fertilized.

Still, supporters and opponents of the regulation said it remained broad enough to protect pharmacists, nurses, doctors and other health care workers from providing birth control, Plan B emergency contraception and other kinds of contraception.  In addition it permits workers to refuse to provide patients with information about other places where they can get those services or fill those prescriptions.

Planned Parenthood said that the new rules would harm women's health by denying women the most accurate information about their health. 

David Stevens of the Catholic Medial Association, agreed the regulation was broad, but said it was important to health care workers. He told the Washington Post, "I think this provides broad application not just to abortion and sterilization but any other type of morally objectionable procedure and research activity. We think it's badly needed. Our members are facing discrimination every day and as we get into human cloning and all sorts of possibilities it's going to become even more important."

One interesting legal question is how this issue will play out in Illinois where Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued a rule in 2005 requiring pharmacies to promptly dispense contraceptives. Generally federal laws trump state laws.