Contraceptive Fudge

Contraceptive Fudge

Contraceptive Fudge

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 28 2008 7:34 AM

Contraceptive Fudge

HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt has issued a final version of his proposed regulation to protect medical conscience (PDF). As predicted, he has dropped the sentence that originally 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 ."

Leavitt has also chosen to leave open the possibility that the regulation will be applied that way. In that case, it would protect a provider's right to withhold oral contraception, which theoretically could prevent implantation of an embryo. Pharmacists and Catholic hospitals are already waging legal battles to assert this right.

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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The proposed regulation is 42 pages long. I'm embarrassed to tell you that I read it last week during my vacation. I was looking for a definition of abortion. I'll save you the trouble: There is none. The regulation draws no distinction between abortion and contraception.

In his blog, Leavitt has twice addressed the contraception question. On Aug. 7, he said his intent was to protect the right of conscience, not to define contraceptives as abortion. This left open the obvious next question: Intent aside, does the right of conscience protected by the regulation include the right to withhold hormonal contraception on the grounds asserted by pharmacist litigants: that it might be abortifacient? Two weeks ago, I invited Leavitt to answer that question. He has ignored it.

He has, however, answered a similar challenge from Mary Jane Gallagher, the president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. In an Aug. 11 blog post, Leavitt quoted and rebutted her:

"Who's going to provide access to contraceptives services if the administration provides this large loophole to deny services?" [said Gallagher.] CQ reported Ms. Gallagher continued: "Providers are 'given an oath—now they get to pick and choose what they want to do' if a regulation is issued, she said."

So, according to Ms. Gallagher's ideology, if a person goes to medical school they lose their right of conscience. ... There is something I'd like to point out to Ms Gallagher and the people she represents. It is currently a violation of three separate federal laws to compel medical practitioners to perform a procedure that violates their conscience.

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Gallagher is explicitly talking about contraception. And Leavitt's response is to invoke conscience rights.

Last week, Leavitt said some practitioners might " press the definition " in the final HHS regulation and argue that hormonal contraception is abortion. They certainly will. Pharmacists for Life International is already on the case . So is the Christian Legal Society . Concerned Women for America says the equation of hormonal contraception with abortion, explicit in the original draft of the regulation, was right all along .

And when these litigants argue that the regulation implicitly covers contraception, they'll have lots of help from Leavitt. They can cite his response to Gallagher. They can also point out that the regulation explicitly lists pharmacies as a category of "affected entities." ( See Page 24 .) Last time I checked, pharmacies didn't do surgical abortions.

The argument on the other side will be that Leavitt has said he's not targeting birth control. "This regulation is not about contraception," he said in a conference call last week. "It's about abortion and conscience." But Leavitt has said the same thing about abortion itself. "This is not a discussion about the rights of a woman to get an abortion," he wrote in his blog. "This is about the right of a doctor to not participate if he or she chooses for reasons they consider a matter of conscience." Leavitt's point, in other words, is that the regulation doesn't ban anything; it just protects the right not to facilitate it. As he put it in the conference call , "There is nothing in this rule that would in any way change a patient's right to a legal procedure." But in asserting this right of refusal, the rule doesn't distinguish between surgical abortion and theoretically abortifacient drugs.

The rule is open to public comments until Sept. 20. You can submit your comments to

. Here's mine: Mr. Secretary, if this rule doesn't extend the right of refusal to hormonal contraception, say so.