Trump creates HHS Conscience and Religious Freedom unit, sparking protest

Violet Powell
January 21, 2018

The office will protect doctors, nurses and other clinicians who refuse to perform abortions and other medical procedures such as sex-reassignment surgery or fertility treatment to lesbian couples.

While the new division's website also mentioned addressing discrimination against workers who chose to participate in procedures like abortions, the press conference exclusively focused on helping healthcare professionals who object to those practices. The broad language could open the door for health care institutions and providers to refuse to treat women seeking abortions, people seeking sterilizations, and others. "The Founding Fathers knew that a nation that respects conscience rights is more diverse and more free, and OCR's new division will help make that vision a reality". This includes the Weldon Amendment, which stipulates that states receiving federal funds can not discriminate against health plans that do not cover or pay for abortions.

As part of this shift, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it was starting a new arm: the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.

"Medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care". I suspect (sorry!) that regulations or some form of guidance will be forthcoming, and that it will provide more specific information for healthcare employers trying to handle religious conscience issues.

Twila Brase, head of the Minnesota-based, national patient-doctor rights group, Citizens' Council for Health Freedom, said establishing the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division is a good move by the administration.

The division would enforce the legal protection and conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers with religious or moral objections to opt out.

"Too many of these healthcare practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against due to their religious beliefs or moral convictions", Hargan said at the event.

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How or if the new division affects healthcare providers and hospital operations is not yet known.

"That promise is being kept today", said acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan, as he announced the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.

The Obama administration in 2011 overturned Bush-era protections that allowed healthcare professionals to cite their religious beliefs to deny care. "It doesn't mean refusing care to a patient because she is transgender", said Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement on Wednesday.

But critics say the move will likely hurt civil rights protections for LGBT people and women.

"This would be yet another attempt to let ideology dictate who is able to get the care they need", Sen.

Dr. Ben Brown, an OB-GYN in Chicago and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, said the proposed rule could have a negative effect on patients, by leading to unnecessary delays in urgent care needs. "When conscience violations and discrimination occur, it is critical that the administration responds with robust enforcement of federal law", Melanie Israel, a research associate at the foundation, said in a statement. "All patients deserve universal access to high quality care and we must guard against erosion of any civil rights protections in health care that would lead to denied or delayed care".

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