7 states sue over Bush rule on health workers

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Seven states sued the federal government Thursday over a new rule that expands protections for doctors and other health care workers who refuse to participate in abortions and other medical procedures because of religious or moral objections.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed the lawsuit in federal court in Hartford on behalf of the states.

They claim the federal rule, issued by the Bush administration last month and set to take effect Tuesday, would trump state laws protecting women's access to birth control, reproductive health services and emergency contraception.

Blumenthal said the regulations "are flawed and defective" and would "unconstitutionally and unconscionably interfere with women's health care rights."

Blumenthal said the rule "shrouds the term abortion in new and unnecessary ambiguity" and encourages medical providers to define it themselves and deny patients contraception, including emergency contraception for rape victims.

A call was left seeking comment with a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Under long-standing federal law, institutions may not discriminate against individuals who refuse to perform abortions or provide a referral for one. The administration has said the new rule is intended to ensure that federal funds don't flow to providers who violate those laws.

"Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said last month when the rule was issued.

President-elect Barack Obama's transition team has said he will deal with "all eleventh-hour regulations" once he is president.

While campaigning in August, Obama criticized the proposal: "This proposed regulation complicates, rather than clarifies the law. It raises troubling issues about access to basic health care for women, particularly access to contraceptives," he said.

California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island joined Connecticut in the lawsuit, which seeks a court order blocking the new rule.

Planned Parenthood of Federation of America Inc. and National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association said they are filing separate, parallel lawsuits.

Mary Jane Gallagher, president and CEO of the family planning association, said the rule is unnecessary because there have been laws on the books for decades protecting medical providers if they refuse to participate in abortions and sterilization services.

She accused the Bush administration of trying to appease religious conservatives who are opposed to contraception.

"It's all ideology. It is how to appeal to this small minority of people who don't want women and men to have reproductive health choices," she said.

Gallagher said the rule most likely will affect poor and uninsured women who rely on family planning clinics for counseling, education and contraception.

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