WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced its "conscience protection" rule for the health care industry Thursday, giving everyone from doctors and hospitals to receptionists and volunteers in medical experiments the right to refuse to participate in medical care they find morally objectionable.
"This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience," said outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.
The right-to-refuse rule includes abortion, but Leavitt's office said it extends to other aspects of health care where moral concerns could arise, including birth control, emergency contraception, in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research or assisted suicide.
The rule will be published today in the Federal Register, and it will take effect the day before President Bush leaves office.
It sets the stage for an early conflict in the Obama administration over the sensitive issue of abortion. In August, when Barack Obama was still a senator, he criticized the rule when it was proposed and said he was "committed to ensuring that the health and reproductive rights of women are protected."
The rule reaches nearly all providers of health care, including hospitals, clinics, universities, doctor's offices and pharmacies, and says they can be charged with discrimination if an employee is pressured to participate in care that is "contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions." Violators would lose their federal funds.
Critics of the rule said it was too broad and threatened the rights of patients. They said they were particularly worried that patients would not be given full and complete information about their medical options.
For example, they said health care workers in an emergency room could deny rape victims information about emergency contraception.
"This gives an open invitation to any doctor, nurse, receptionist, insurance plan or even hospital to refuse to provide information about birth control on the grounds that they believe contraception amounts to abortion," said lawyers for the National Women's Law Center.