President Barack Obama wants to rescind a Bush administration rule that strengthened job protections for doctors and nurses who refuse for moral reasons to perform abortions.
A Health and Human Services official said Friday the administration will publish notice of its intentions early next week, opening a 30-day comment period for advocates, medical groups and the public. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the notice has not been completed.
The Bush administration instituted the rule in its last days, and it was quickly challenged in federal court by several states and medical organizations. As a candidate, President Barack Obama criticized the regulation and campaign aides promised that if elected, he would review it.
The news that he was doing so drew praise from abortion-rights supporters and condemnation from groups opposed to abortion.
"It would be a horrible move. These regulations were a long time coming," said Tom McClusky, a vice president at Family Research Council. "What they seek to do is protect patients, nurses, doctors and other health care professionals from being forced to violate their consciences."
McClusky and other abortion opponents said the Bush regulation clarified federal policies and raised awareness about the rights of medical providers to follow their consciences. But abortion rights advocates said it was vague and overly broad, and could reduce access to other services — allowing a drug store clerk to refuse to sell birth control pills, for example.
"I think it's a wonderful step," Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who co-chairs the Congressional Pro-choice Caucus and has introduced legislation to overturn the regulation, said of Obama's move.
"That rule was actually a poorly drafted last-minute attempt to, I think, restrict health care access and I think it would have had far-reaching and unintended consequences."
Federal law has long forbidden discrimination against health care professionals who refuse to perform abortions or provide referrals for them on religious or moral grounds. The Obama administration supports those laws, said the HHS official.
The Bush administration's rule adds a requirement that institutions that get federal money certify their compliance with laws protecting the rights of moral objectors. It was intended to block the flow of federal funds to hospitals and other institutions that ignore those rights.
But the Obama administration was concerned that the Bush regulation could also be used to refuse birth control, family planning services and counseling for vaccines and transfusions.
"The administration supports a tightly written conscience clause," said the HHS official. "While we are concerned about the Bush rule, we also understand there might be a need to clarify existing laws."
The administration will review comments from the public before making a final decision. Options range from repealing the regulation to writing a new one with a narrower scope.
The administration's move was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.