From the people who brought you the Terri Schiavo spectacle, the stem-cell research stalemate and the atrocious waste of tax money on abstinence-only sex education that has been shown not to work, comes a sequel: a proposal to redefine abortion to include some of the most common forms of birth control, and to potentially penalize with funding cuts hundreds of thousands of doctors, hospitals and other health care providers who expect their employees to give women full reproductive care.

This parting gift to the religious right comes in a proposed rule by the Health and Human Services Department, which says it is merely revising existing federal rules that allow health care personnel to opt out of performing an abortion if they have a moral or religious objection to the procedure. From that minimalist and unobjectionable clause, a monster grows.

The draft regulation would redefine abortion to include “any of the various procedures — including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action — that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.”

The right wing has failed to win approval of a “human life” amendment to the Constitution that would declare that life begins at conception. It has failed to get even conservative-leaning courts to go along with the most extreme elements of its anti-abortion agenda. It failed to block approval of the RU-486 pill that produces a medical abortion. It failed to block government approval of emergency contraception — the “morning after” pill long promoted by the medical profession — which is taken whether or not a woman even knows she is pregnant. Seven years ago, when the first Bush administration budget included language that would drop a requirement that federal workers’ health insurance plans offer contraception if the plan includes coverage of prescription drugs, a bipartisan storm extinguished the idea.

And so, having failed to keep American women from having access to basic birth control, the right is trying to use the guise of an existing “conscience” requirement to achieve what it cannot accomplish through an open political process. You could, if you were taken to an emergency room after being raped, be told by a worker invoking the conscience clause that you cannot have a drug to prevent a possible pregnancy.

“Women would be totally subject to the luck of the draw when they went to get reproductive health care,” says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Administration officials say they cannot comment in detail on the proposal because it is a draft. They insist it is being promoted merely because the agency has an obligation to enforce the existing conscience rules. Yet the document reveals its own origins: In recent years, as religious conservatives have tried to get pharmacies to allow employees to refuse to dispense birth control pills to women, states have responded with laws that require the prescriptions to be filled. Six states have laws ensuring that pharmacies will fill birth control prescriptions and 27 have laws guaranteeing equity in insurance prescription coverage for contraception, according to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. Fourteen states currently have laws guaranteeing rape victims access to emergency contraception.

The draft rule, in fact, singles out New York, California, Colorado, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts for actions they took to ensure that women, especially rape victims, would have access to birth control.

It estimates that about 504,000 recipients of federal funds — including any hospital or doctor who participates in Medicare and Medicaid — would have to allow its staff to exercise its individual birth-control conscience. It defines a health care “entity” to include health maintenance organizations and other insurance plans — language indicating that federal employees who receive insurance through the government also could be affected.

Clinton and other senators have written to Secretary Michael O. Leavitt in an effort to stop the proposal; so have scores of public health and women’s groups. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has called the proposed redefinition of abortion “inconsistent with all established medical authorities” and “an affront to health professionals and American women.”

The religious right has only six months left in President Bush’s term to continue its war on science and its war on women. The latest sneak attack has been exposed. Congress has a duty to beat it back.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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