Bending the Old Rules
Wapshott, Nicholas, New Statesman (1996)
After a storm of protests from abortion rights groups, the American health secretary, Michael Leavitt, has for the time being backed down from issuing a legally binding regulation that would have made contraception more difficult to obtain by redefining birth control pills, the "morning-after pill" and devices such as IUDs as forms of abortion.
Health workers already have the right, guaranteed by federal law, to decline to take part in abortions on the grounds of conscience. The proposed change in definition would have allowed them to legally deny contraception to patients as well.
"An early draft of the regulations found its way into public circulation before it had reached my review," Leavitt wrote in his blog on 11 August. "It contained words that lead some to conclude my intent is to deal with the subject of contraceptives, somehow defining them as abortion. Not true."
Leavitt's denial is the latest twist in what is believed by abortion rights and women's groups to be a last-gasp attempt by the Bush administration to accommodate the wishes of its conservative Christian supporters before the president hands over the White House to his successor in January.
Bush's appointment of conservatives to the Supreme Court has already led to a judgment outlawing most late-term abortions. It is the most significant restriction to date of the right of American women to obtain abortions, established by the 1973 landmark ruling Roe v Wade.
Despite his pronouncement, Leavitt is leaving the door open to issuing a regulation "directly focused on the protection of practitioner conscience". Many, including Hillary Clinton, believe this will be a back-door way of making it more difficult for Americans to obtain contraceptives. Clinton has demanded an urgent meeting with Leavitt to clarify his intentions.
Earlier this year, Leavitt responded to a letter sent by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The circular demanded that members who object to assisting in abortions refer patients "in a timely manner" to practitioners who do not have moral objections to terminating a pregnancy, or they would face expulsion.
Leavitt suggested that the bodies rethink their action, which could deny the legal right of anti-abortion medical practitioners to exercise their conscience, by making them assist in abortions through the act of referral. "In particular," he wrote, "I am concerned that such actions by these entities would violate federal laws against discrimination."
The two institutions did not budge. As Leavitt put it in his recent blog: "Frankly, I found their response to be dodgy and unsatisfying."
In response, Leavitt's officials issued a press release declaring: "Unless changes are made, physicians could be forced to refer patients for abortions even if it violates their conscience. …