WASHINGTON - Taking another step into the abortion debate, the Obama administration will move today to rescind a controversial rule that allows health care workers to deny abortion counseling or other family planning services if doing so would violate their moral beliefs, according to administration officials.
The rollback of the so-called "conscience rule" comes just two months after the Bush administration announced it late last year in one of its final policy initiatives.
The new administration's action seems certain to stoke ideological battles between supporters and opponents of abortion rights over the responsibilities of doctors, nurses and other medical workers to their patients.
Seven states, including California, Illinois and Connecticut, as well as two family planning groups, have filed lawsuits challenging the Bush rule, arguing that it sacrifices the health of patients to religious beliefs of medical providers.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has reported cases such as that of a Virginia mother of two who became pregnant because she was denied emergency contraception. In Texas, according to the group, a rape victim found her prescription for emergency contraception rejected by a pharmacist.
Supporters of the rule say it protects doctors who should not be forced to prescribe treatments like birth control pills or the so-called morning-after pill.
Obama -- a longtime supporter of abortion rights -- has been expected to reverse a number of Bush-era policies restricting access to family planning services.
But the new president has also been very sensitive to the explosiveness of the reproductive rights issue.
Last month, without official ceremony, Obama quietly overturned a controversial ban on U.S. funding for international aid groups that provide abortion services.
The move by his Department of Health and Human Services to throw out the conscience rule is being made equally quietly, as most of Washington focuses on Obama's blockbuster budget plan.
On Thursday, officials stressed that the administration is looking for input from people across the ideological spectrum before it finalizes the rollback after the standard 30-day comment period.
"We believe that this is a complex issue that requires a thoughtful process where all voices can be heard," said one official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the policy change.
The officials said the administration will consider drafting a new rule to clarify what health care workers can reasonably refuse to do for their patients.
For more than 30 years, federal law has allowed doctors and nurses to decline to provide abortion services as a matter of conscience, a protection that is not subject to rule making.
In promulgating the rule last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said it was necessary to address discrimination in the medical field.
Leavitt criticized "the development of an environment in the health care field that is intolerant of individual conscience, certain religious beliefs, ethnic and cultural traditions and moral convictions."
But critics complained the language of the rule is overly broad, covering any "activity related in any way to providing medicine, health care and other service relative to health and welfare."
Obama officials said the administration's goal is to make the rule clearer rather than force doctors to provide abortions.
"The Bush provider refusal regulation has created confusion about the scope and original intent of the law," one official said.
"It went into effect in the last days of the Bush administration, claiming to bring clarity to current law. But instead it created much confusion. ... Not only does it potentially make it harder for women to get the care they need, but it is worded so vaguely, that some have argued it could limit counseling, family planning, even blood transfusions and end-of-life care."
If after 30 days of comments, the administration throws out the Bush rule, it would have to begin a new rule-making process to enact a replacement.