Birth-Control Blur

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 12 2008 7:42 AM

Birth-Control Blur

Last Tuesday, I wrote about a draft regulation, circulated by the Department of Health and Human Services, that would protect the right of private employees to refuse to facilitate any abortifacient chemical or activity. The draft rule defined abortion as "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 ." It would thereby encompass the right to withhold oral contraception, which theoretically could prevent implantation of an embryo.

On Friday, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt wrote a blog post about the draft rule. According to the Washington Post , Leavitt "denied that [the] draft regulation would redefine common birth control methods as abortion and protect the rights of doctors and other health-care workers who refuse to provide them."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Really? Where's the denial?

Here's the relevant part of Leavitt's post:

An early draft of the regulations found its way into public circulation before it had reached my review. 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.
The Bush Administration has consistently supported the unborn. 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.
The Department is still contemplating if it will issue a regulation or not. If it does, it will be directly focused on the protection of practitioner conscience.

Leavitt's post says his intent is to protect the right of conscience, not to define contraceptives as abortion. It doesn't deny that the final version of the rule will have the effect of treating some contraceptives as abortion. And there's every reason to believe it will do just that.

Leavitt writes as though conscience protection is a separate issue from the blurring of abortion with contraception. It isn't. A rule that guarantees the pro-life conscience rights of doctors, pharmacists, and other private employees is limited only by what those employees believe. And what many of them believe, as the Post 's Rob Stein has documented , is that oral contraceptives are wrong because they can prevent implantation.

If you think Leavitt won't extend conscience protections that far, you haven't met his boss. Nine years ago, when George W. Bush was running for president, Tim Russert asked him : "Do you believe life begins at conception?" Bush replied: "I do." Two years later, as he prohibited federal funding of embryo-destructive stem-cell research, Bush repeated, "I think life begins at conception." Referring to pre-implantation embryos, Bush wrote that "it is unethical to end life," even to save the lives of others.

How can Leavitt fail to extend conscience protections to a pharmacist who refuses to fill a birth-control prescription because, like Bush, he believes that life begins at conception? If that belief is good enough to bar funding of stem-cell research, why isn't it good enough for the pharmacist?

If Leavitt really wants to clarify this question, he can do so by writing one more post in which he stipulates that the HHS rule, if issued, will not extend to drugs or procedures that act prior to implantation. I'm betting a month's supply of birth-control pills that he won't.

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