WASHINGTON, D.C., February 18, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The Obama Administration has rescinded a federal regulation from 2008 that protected the conscience rights of health care providers opposed to providing abortifacient contraception, such as the Plan-B “morning-after” pill.

The Health and Human Services Department under Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, issued the new “final rule,” which leaves health-care workers of federally funded entities a narrower conscience exemption that only protects them from having to participate in abortions or sterilizations.

The new regulation replaces the earlier one enacted in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, which broadened the interpretation of existing federal conscience statutes related to abortion to include health professionals opposed to emergency contraception, such as Ella or Plan-B, drugs which pro-life advocates say also act as abortifacients.

Sebelius alleged in the promulgation of the new final rule that the Bush-era conscience regulations “instead led to greater confusion”, citing comments received by HHS. She said her department was changing the rule because it was “unclear and potentially over-broad in scope.”

The HHS Secretary said in her statement that her department did share the concern of those in favor of rescinding the rule that it had the “potential to negatively impact patient access to contraception and certain other medical services” esp. for certain sub-populations, such as “low income patients, minorities, the uninsured, patients in rural areas, Medicaid beneficiaries, or other medically under-served populations.”

The ruling is a victory for Planned Parenthood and other “family planning” groups that have insisted that drugs like Plan-B (taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse) and Ella (taken within five-days of intercourse) should be defined as “contraception.” Pro-life groups countered that pro-life health providers should be protected from discrimination under federal statutes, because these drugs could prevent a conceived human embryo from implanting in the mother’s womb, thereby aborting it.

HHS will keep the enforcement mechanisms for conscience violations that were stipulated in the Final Rule 2008, such as complaints being handled through the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

However, it rescinds the requirement that recipients of certain HHS funds provide certification of their compliance with laws protecting provider conscience rights. Instead, the HHS will just amend the grant writing process, so health care organizations can stipulate that they understand and will comply with federally-mandated conscience protections.

The statement by Sebelius did point out that the certification requirement until this point had not been finalized anyway, and therefore not enforced. She did provide a link to where health providers facing discrimination could learn how to file with the OCR.

She also noted that the vast majority of 300,000 comments received by HHS since they announced their proposal to rescind the 2008 Final Rule were overwhelmingly against rescinding: 187,000 comments.

Changes in the rule were criticized by pro-life groups who said the new HHS Final Rule promoted by Sebelius would end up hurting doctors and other health professionals who would choose to leave their fields rather than betray their moral or religious convictions.

“Today’s erosion of conscience protections for medical professionals is a blow both to medicine and the right to practice one’s deeply-held convictions,” said Dr. J. Scott Ries, on behalf of the 16,000-member Christian Medical Association (CMA).

Ries said the new HHS final rule disregarded the findings of the previous HHS 2008 final rule which stated that allowing health professionals to practice according to their convictions would negatively impact patient services or create “new barriers.”

“Losing conscientious healthcare professionals and faith-based institutions to discrimination and job loss especially imperils the poor and patients in medically underserved areas,” said Ries. “We are already facing critical shortages of primary care physicians, and the Obama administration’s decision now threatens to make the situation far worse for patients across the country who depend on faith-based health care.”

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins opined that while pro-life advocates support allowing the OCR to investigate claims of discrimination, he said it alone was “insufficient to ensure such discrimination does not take place” because the new regulations “severely limit the enforcement provision in the previous conscience regulations.”

He said the new HHS rule increases the urgency to expand pro-life conscience protections through the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 361), submitted by US Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Dan Lipinski’s (D-Ill.) “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (H.R. 3), and Rep. Joe Pitt’s (R-PN) “Protect Life Act” (H.R. 358).