(CNSNews.com) - Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has not yet decided if he will draft a new regulation to ensure that doctors who object to abortion are protected from discrimination and that federally funded medical entities comply with federal laws, according to his Aug. 7 blog on the HHS Web site.
"The Department is still contemplating if it will issue a regulation or not," Leavitt wrote. "If it does, it will be directly focused on the protection of practitioner conscience."
The blog is in response to ongoing criticism of a draft of the regulation that was leaked to the New York Times in July and reported by the paper as rules that would "require all recipients of aid under federal health programs to certify that they will not refuse to hire nurses and other providers who object to abortion and even certain types of birth control."
"An early draft of the regulation found its way into public circulation before it had reached my review," Leavitt said in his blog. "It contained words that led some to conclude my intent is to deal with the subject of contraceptives, somehow defining them as abortion. Not true.
"The Bush Administration has consistently supported the unborn,” wrote Leavitt. “However, the issue I asked to be addressed in this regulation is not abortion or contraceptives, but the legal right medical practitioners have to practice according to their conscience and patients should be able to choose a doctor who has beliefs like his or hers."
In the New York Times story, pro-abortion groups were asked about the draft regulation.
Mary Jane Gallagher, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, told the Times that she thought the regulation could hurt women by limiting access to contraceptives.
Nancy Keenan, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League Pro-Choice America blamed the Bush administration.
“Why on earth is the Bush administration trying to discourage doctors and clinics from providing contraception to women who need it?” Keenan was quoted as saying in the Times’ July 15 article.
But pro-life groups, such as Focus on the Family, like Leavitt's idea to regulate how entities certify staff and use federal dollars.
Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of public policy for Focus, told CNSNews.com although there are federal laws protecting medical professionals from discrimination, including religious beliefs, and laws to make sure recipients of federal dollars are complying, it is up to the government to have policies that ensure those laws are followed.
"Any entity taking federal funds has to comply with federal laws," Earll said. "To do anything less would be irresponsible. We do think there should be regulations."
The controversy began when Leavitt heard about the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) 2008 certification policy that would require physicians to refer patients to abortion providers if they would not provide one themselves.
In the letter sent to American Board of Obstetrics (ABOG) and Gynecology Executive Director Dr. Norman Gant in March, Leavitt wrote, “It appears that the interaction of the [ABOG Bulletin for 2008 Maintenance of Certification] with the ACOG ethics report would force physicians to violate their conscience by referring patients for abortions or taking other objectionable actions, or risk losing their board certification.”
Leavitt also said that the enforcement of this ACOG policy by certain federally funded entities could violate federal laws against discrimination.
"Several months ago, I became aware that certain medical specialty certification groups were adopting requirements which potentially violate a physician’s right to choose whether he or she performs abortion," Leavitt wrote in his Aug. 7 blog. "I wrote to the (ACOG and ABOG), protesting their actions. Frankly, I found their response to be dodgy and unsatisfying. I sent another letter, more of the same.
"Not only are there clear provisions in three separate laws protecting federally funded health care providers’ right of conscience, but doing otherwise undermines the most fundamental moral underpinning of freedom of expression and action,” he wrote. “I asked that regulations be drafted which would enforce these long-standing laws protecting a medical practitioner’s conscience rights."
The HHS press office could not say when a decision about the regulation would be made.