As early as this week, health workers who are against performing abortions, treating transgender patients, or providing services to which they morally object could be protected by a new rule proposed under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) civil rights office.
According to Politico, the plan is called “Ensuring Compliance with Certain Statutory Provisions in Health Care; Delegations of Authority” and is now under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget. It would shield health workers from performing treatments they religiously or morally oppose, and punish organizations that don’t comply with the policy.
Politico reports the potential change has been described as creating a new “division” of the HHS civil rights office to review compliance, to audit, and to carry out other forms of enforcement to make sure workers are being allowed to pass on procedures. If approved this week, the rules could coincide with Friday’s “March for Life,” the largest annual anti-abortion rally in the country.
The change under the Trump administration would follow the Obama administration’s 2011 rewriting of similar Bush-era protections. Previously under the Bush administration, health workers cited religious obligations in order to deny fertility treatment to lesbian couples, or ambulance transportation to a pregnant woman who sought an abortion. There has been no clarification as to what the Trump administration rule would mean in emergency or life-threatening situations.
While critics of Bush’s rules said they were too broad, supporters of the potential HHS measure say the Obama administration left health workers liable to be fired if they refused procedures. Roger Severino, President Donald Trump‘s top appointee for the HHS civil rights office, has said reissuing these protections is one of the office’s main priorities.
“To be forced under pain of losing one’s job is just outrageous,” Republican New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, a co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, said last week. Trump is “now looking to remedy that through the HHS mechanism—hasn’t happened yet, but it will.”
Update 4:10pm CT, Jan. 18: The Trump administration has rolled out a “new conscience and religious freedom division,” according to the Washington Post, that will protect healthcare workers who don’t want to perform work that goes against their moral or religious convictions.
“For too long, too many of these health-care practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against,” Acting Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan said at an event for Republicans and religious organizations on Thursday, referring to workers with religious beliefs that don’t align with procedures like abortion and assisted suicide.
However, the language regarding the new division’s scope is broad, leaving many to worry that this is just an excuse to discriminate against individuals based on sexuality and gender, affecting the healthcare of LGBTQ people.
“There’s every reason to think that this administration is going to place religious objections over the health and lives of rights of individuals,” ACLU deputy director Louise Melling told the Post.