updated 9/24/2008 1:05:57 PM ET 2008-09-24T17:05:57

Attorneys general from 13 states on Wednesday protested a proposed Bush administration rule that would give stronger job protections to doctors and other health care workers who refuse to participate in abortions because of religious or moral objections.

In a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, the states said the rule is too vague in defining abortion, and may be interpreted to include dispensing birth control.

"It threatens to drastically discourage and even deter a woman's right to choose," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said. "This proposed rule unconscionably puts personal agendas before patient care ... failing even to acknowledge the rights of rape victims and others to access birth control and related vital health services."

Other states joining Connecticut in protesting the rule are Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont.

The rule proposed by the Bush administration last month applies to institutions receiving government money. It would require as many as 584,000 employers ranging from major hospitals to doctors' offices and nursing homes to certify in writing that they are complying with several federal laws that protect the conscience rights of health care workers. Violations could lead to a loss of government funding and legal action to recoup federal money already paid.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt has said that health care professionals should not face retaliation from employers or from medical societies because they object to abortion.

States say rule vague
In the letter, the attorneys general said the rule threatens federal funding for institutions that provide health care and birth control to rape victims.

"Vagueness and broad application, together with the penalty of withdrawal of critical federal health care funding to a health care entity that violates — even inadvertently — the proposed regulation may have substantial and significant consequences for the provision of health care to many Americans," the officials said in the letter.

The 42-page rule seeks to set up a system for enforcing conscience protections in three separate federal laws, the earliest of which dates to the 1970s. In some cases, the laws aim to protect both providers who refuse to take part in abortions and those who do.

The regulation is written to apply to a broad swath of the health care work force, not doctors alone. Accordingly, an employee whose task it is to clean the instruments used in a particular procedure would be covered. Also covered would be volunteers and trainees.

The Bush administration could impose the new rule after a 30-day comment period, which ends on Thursday.

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