Thursday, May 2, 2019

Trump administration creates new religious, moral protections for health workers

By Nathaniel Weixel 
12:16 PM EDT

The Trump administration is moving to strengthen the rights of health care workers who have religious and moral objections to certain procedures, such as abortions.

A policy announced Thursday would finalize broad rules to protect health workers and institutions from having to violate their religious or moral beliefs by participating in abortions, providing contraception, sterilization or other procedures.

President Trump 
first made the announcement in the Rose Garden during a ceremony for the National Day of Prayer."And just today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students and faith-based charities. They’ve been wanting to do that for a long time," Trump said.

The rule represents a major victory for Christian and anti-abortion groups that are close allies of the administration.

The rules also align with the new mission statement of the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which was revised this week to emphasize a focus on protecting “conscience and religious freedom.”

“Finally, laws prohibiting government funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law,” said OCR Director Roger Severino. “This rule ensures that healthcare entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the health care field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life."

The rule prompted swift pushback from Democrats.

It will "add to the Trump administration’s continued attacks on patient access to health care," said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Education and Labor Chairman  
(D-Va.) in a joint statement.

"While religious liberty is a fundamental American value, it should not permit a person to cause harm to or subvert the rights of another person,” the lawmakers said.

California Attorney General 
hinted the state may sue over the new rule.

"It’s 2019, not 1920. We won’t go back to the days when Americans seeking healthcare faced discrimination simply because they were female or LGBTQ. California stands ready to take any and all legal action to prove the Trump Administration wrong," Becerra said in a statement.

The rule replaces an Obama-era policy from 2011 that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said "has proven inadequate."

Republicans and anti-abortion groups often complained that the Obama administration did not enforce federal laws that protect health workers and institutions from having to violate their religious or moral beliefs by participating in abortions or other procedures.

The new rule will also allow the Office of Civil Rights to receive complaints from workers who say they experienced discrimination because they refused to participate in specific medical procedures, and investigate alleged violations and take appropriate enforcement action.

HHS said the rule does not create any new laws; it merely enforces about 25 existing federal laws that protect conscience rights. OCR said it will enforce the conscience protections in the same way it enforces other civil rights requirements, such as the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

The announcement was met with applause from religious groups.

"Today is another crucial moment in which President Trump’s promises are becoming a reality. Every American should be greatly encouraged to know that they have a president who stands up for the freedom to believe and live according to those beliefs without fear of discrimination,” said Family Research Council President Perkins.

Patient and advocacy groups said the rule amounts to legalized discrimination, and would make it difficult for patients to access needed care.

"In allowing doctors, nurses, and even receptionists to deny care to patients, the Trump-Pence administration is providing legal cover for discrimination," said Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood. "This will widen health care disparities and worsen health outcomes for those who already face too many barriers to care," Wen said.

"Religious liberty is a fundamental right, but it doesn’t include the right to discriminate or harm others," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Denying patients health care is not religious liberty. Medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care."

—Updated at 3:41 p.m.

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