News Releases

Senators to Leavitt: Abandon Attempt to Undermine Women's Health

Jul 23 2008

In letter to HHS Secretary, 28 Senators say proposed rule would limit women's family planning options, access to health care services

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Twenty-eight U.S. Senators today wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt urging him to drop a draft regulation which could deny access to critical family planning options to millions of American women.  The draft rule, which surfaced last week in news reports, aims to change the definition of abortion to include all contraceptives and therefore allow health care providers and corporations to refuse to provide family planning.

The draft regulation could have the effect of severely undermining hard-fought state laws that guarantee women's access to birth control and could put federal programs like Medicaid and Title X, which provide family-planning services to millions of women, in jeopardy as well.

"As a matter of public policy, it is utterly irresponsible for the federal government to hinder women's access to contraceptive services.  We urge you not to pursue this course of action as it would seriously undermine the access of millions of American women to affordable and effective reproductive-health care," the Senators wrote.

Last week, Senators Patty Murray and Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Leavitt to kill the draft rule.  While the Senators have not heard back from the Secretary directly, a Department spokesman indicated that HHS "has an obligation to enforce" laws that would allow the hiring of health care professionals who could deny family planning options to women.

The full text of the Senators' letter follows:

Dear Mr. Secretary:

It has come to our attention that a draft regulation is being prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services that would have the effect of encouraging health-care institutions and individuals to refuse to provide birth control to patients who need it.  We are writing today to urge you to abandon plans to promulgate such a rule. Though the proposed rule purports to enforce two existing pieces of legislation known as the Church and Weldon amendments, in fact, it goes much further.   The draft regulation could deny access to critical family planning for women across the country. 

In particular, the regulation, if it is published as it presently exists in its draft form, will define abortion as "any of the various procedures … that result in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation."  (Emphasis added.)  In other words, the draft regulation would define birth control as abortion and therefore allow individuals and health-care corporations to refuse to provide family planning.

By medical definition, a pregnancy does not begin until a fertilized egg implants in a woman's uterine wall.  Most modern forms of birth control work, among other ways, by blocking a fertilized egg from doing so.  Calling a fertilized egg "before implantation" a "human being in utero" is factually and biologically incorrect. Confusing the definitions of contraception and abortion could have profound implications, leading to disarray in law, regulations, and policy. 

Here are but a few examples:

First, the regulation would allow health-care institutions – HMOs, health plans, and hospitals, for instance - to claim "conscientious objection" to birth control in addition to abortion, and to refuse to prescribe contraception and make referrals for birth control.

Second, the regulation directly undermines many important state laws. It could threaten rape survivors’ access to emergency contraception in hospital emergency rooms, and might even prevent women from learning that this option exists. Fourteen states currently have laws guaranteeing that access. Similarly, six states have laws ensuring that pharmacists will fill women’s birth control prescriptions. This draft regulation could directly undermine those laws. Finally, 27 states have laws guaranteeing contraceptive equity in health-insurance plans; this draft regulation could place those guarantees in jeopardy.

Third, the regulation appears to stand in open conflict with at least two federal programs that require contraceptive services to be provided to clients upon request: Medicaid and Title X.  The Medicaid program includes birth control as a mandated benefit for patients.  The sole purpose of the Title X program is to provide family planning and other related reproductive-health services.  This regulation could throw both programs into chaos by telling both individual program staff and health-care institutions that they may refuse to provide family planning after all.

The fact is, most Americans – regardless of their position on reproductive choice -- agree that increasing access to birth control prevents unintended pregnancies – and results in fewer abortions.  As a matter of public policy, it is utterly irresponsible for the federal government to hinder women’s access to contraceptive services.

We urge you not to pursue this course of action as it would seriously undermine the access of millions of American women to affordable and effective reproductive-health care.


Senator Patty Murray
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton
Senator Barbara Boxer
Senator Barack Obama
Senator Debbie Stabenow
Senator Maria Cantwell
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg
Senator John F. Kerry
Senator Bernard Sanders
Senator Robert Menendez
Senator Charles E. Schumer
Senator Patrick J. Leahy
Senator Sherrod Brown
Senator Claire McCaskill
Senator Ron Wyden
Senator Richard J. Durbin
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Senator Jon Tester
Senator Barbara A. Mikulski
Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Max Baucus
Senator Dianne Feinstein
Senator Blanche Lincoln
Senator Russ Feingold
Senator Benjamin L. Cardin
Senator Edward Kennedy
Senator Harry Reid
Senator Christopher J. Dodd