WASHINGTON President Barack Obama's administration took a first step on Friday toward rescinding a controversial rule mandated by the Bush administration that protects U.S. health workers who refuse to participate in abortions and other care on moral grounds.
An official at the Department of Health and Human Services said the rule had "upset the balance" between allowing doctors to decline to provide abortions and protecting the rights of women to get the care they need.
The move to rescind the rule was welcomed by abortion rights groups and condemned by opponents of abortion. House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner said it would weaken a rule "meant to safeguard the sanctity of human life."
Current law protects healthcare workers who do not want to perform abortions.
The Bush administration rule that took effect on January 20 -- the same day as Barack Obama was sworn in as president -- went further by preventing hospitals, clinics and other groups that receive federal money from discriminating against workers who refuse to participate in care they find objectionable.
The wording was vague enough to let health professionals invoke the conscience clause for things like contraceptives, family planning and counseling for vaccines and blood transfusions, the agency official said on condition of anonymity.
"We recognize and understand that some providers have objections to providing abortions. We want to ensure that current law protects them," the official said.
"But we do not want to impose new limitations on services ... like family planning and contraception that would actually help prevent the need for an abortion in the first place."
The Department of Health and Human Services sent a proposal to withdraw the rule to the Office of Management and Budget on Friday. The department plans to rescind the rule after a 30-day public comment period, the official said.
The Bush regulation prompted a lawsuit in January by two abortion rights groups, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. Attorneys general of several states had filed similar challenges.
Reproductive rights groups welcomed the move to rescind the rule.
"Today's action by the Obama administration demonstrates that this president is not going to stand by and let women's health be placed in jeopardy," said Cecile Richards, head of the Planned Parenthood Federation.
Mary Jane Gallagher, head of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, called it an "important start."
"Women and men who depend on these services cannot afford for their access to counseling, education, contraception and preventive health screenings to be limited by this extreme rule," she said.
Boehner said the decision "is an action that will hurt faith-based health providers and hospitals throughout our nation ... It will also inevitably result in more abortions being performed."
Deirdre McQuade, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the organization was "gravely concerned" because the decision would "undermine our national heritage of diversity and religious freedom."
(Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh)