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By Louise Melling, Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

Last Thursday the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released proposed regulations (PDF) that could seriously undermine women's access to reproductive health services, including birth control and abortion. Now the public has 30 days to let the Bush  administration know precisely what we think of these regulations. Click here for our Action Alert, which will allow you to send comments to HHS.

The Bush administration is trying to spin the proposed regulations as a necessary means of protecting health care workers who refuse to participate in abortions. But federal law has long carefully balanced protections for individual religious liberty and patients' access to reproductive health care. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

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What's really new about these proposed regulations is that they appear to take patients' health needs out of the equation. They expand the ability of health care workers to refuse to provide complete and accurate information and counseling to women who seek services. Moreover, both the regulations, and Secretary of HHS Michael Leavitt's public comments about them, leave the door open as to whether institutions and individuals can refuse to  provide contraception.

Make no mistake: that lack of clarity is intentional. As the Washington Post reports, "…when pressed about whether the regulation would protect health-care  workers who consider birth control pills, Plan B and other forms of contraception to be equivalent to abortion, HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt said: 'This regulation does not seek to resolve any ambiguity in that area.'" Indeed, the Wall Street Journal notes Leavitt's admission that some medical providers may want to "press the definition."

Not reassuring.

Ditto for Leavitt's justification for issuing the proposed regulations, which is based on his willful  misinterpretation of last November's statement (PDF) from the ethics committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist. ACOG said that doctors should either be prepared to perform "standard reproductive services" or else refer those patients to someone who will. Leavitt claims that ACOG's statement could potentially strip noncompliant doctors of their  board certification, never mind that both ACOG and the executive director of the certifying board have explicitly told him otherwise.

But these regulations aren't about responding to facts. This administration has, time and again, put its political and ideological concerns above the best interests of the American people.

They are, however, a very serious threat to women's health and to existing patient protections that ensure that even in the face of religious refusals women can  get the health care they need.

Click here to go to our Action Alert, which will allow you to submit comments to HHS. The deadline is September 20 and volume counts, so please act quickly  and tell your friends.

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Originally posted to ACLU on Tue Aug 26, 2008 at 08:16 AM PDT.

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