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January 19, 2018

HHS unveils new 'conscience and religious freedom' division

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    The Trump administration on Thursday announced a new office that will aim to protect health care professionals who have moral or religious objections to certain medical care, such as abortion and transgender care.

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    HHS acting Secretary Eric Hargan said the new division carries out an executive order President Trump signed last year that instructed federal agencies to expand religious liberty under federal law. HHS in October 2017 issued interim final rules under the same order that significantly expanded exemptions available to employers under the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraceptive coverage rules. Federal judges have issued temporary injunctions blocking those rules.

    About the new office

    According to Vox, the office's creation revises a regulation enacted by HHS under former President Barack Obama's administration that bars health care providers who receive federal funding from refusing to treat transgender patients or women who had sought or were seeking abortion care. Five states and three religiously-affiliated health care provider in August 2016 filed a federal lawsuit against the rule.

    The new division, called the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, will enable providers who have religious or moral objections to certain types of care to opt out of providing such care. The division will be responsible for reviewing provider complaints and ensuring that hospitals, clinics, and other facilities are accommodating their beliefs. HHS' Office for Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said the office has received 34 such complaints since Trump took office.


    The announcement drew praise from conservative and antiabortion-rights groups who have said existing laws do not go far enough to protect providers, while several abortion-rights and LGBTQ groups voiced concerns.

    David Christensen, VP of government affairs at the conservative Family Research Council, said, "We think the Trump administration should set an example in enforcing the multiple conscience laws that have been passed since the 1970s to prevent the government from punishing people who have objections to participating in abortions."

    Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List, said, "This is a welcome change from the Obama administration's stubborn refusal to enforce federal laws that prohibit discrimination against health care entities."

    In contrast, Dana Singiser, VP of government affairs for Planned Parenthood, said the new policy "will impose a broad religious refusal policy that will allow individuals and institutions to deny basic care for women and transgender people. We know from experience that denial of care compromises care."

    Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the policy seeks to "devalue the humanity of LGBTQ people," adding, "Every American deserves access to medically necessary health care, and that health care should not be determined by the personal opinions of individual health care providers or administrative staff."

    Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, suggested her organization was considering legal action. "Choosing your patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom," Melling said. She added, "Should the [Trump] administration choose to move forward to implement a discriminatory policy, we will see them in court" (Hellmann, The Hill, 1/18; Eilperin/Cha, Washington Post, 1/17; Armour/Radnofsky, Wall Street Journal, 1/18; McGraw, ABC News, 1/18; Kirby, Vox, 1/18).

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