Feds Issue New Religious Freedom Rule for Health Workers

(CN) – Government health care workers with religious or moral objections to abortions, birth control or assisted suicide will be free to refuse to provide those services under a new rule issued Thursday by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“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,” said Roger Severino, head of the HHS’s Office for Civil Rights, in a statement. “Protecting conscience and religious freedom not only fosters greater diversity in healthcare, it’s the law.”

Severino created the OCR’s Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom in 2018 to protect the religious rights of health care providers worried that their jobs would force them to violate their faith.

“No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice,” he said at the time.

The new rule is already facing resistance as the city and county of San Francisco filed a federal lawsuit Thursday asking for an injunction to block enforcement of it.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera said that the federal rule would reduce access to health care among women and those in the LGBT communities.

“At its core, this rule is about denying people medical care,” Herrera said in a statement. “This administration is willing to sacrifice patients’ health and lives — particularly those of women, members of the LGBTQ community, and low-income families — to score right-wing political points. It’s reprehensible. People’s health should not be a political football.”

San Francisco could stand to lose almost $1 billion in federal funding if it fails to comply, Herrera said.

According to the Office for Civil Rights’ fact sheet on the new rule, it ensures that healthcare workers will not feel compelled to leave their jobs to avoid performing abortions.

It also requires recipients of federal health and human services dollars to both “submit assurances and certifications to HHS that they are in compliance with federal health care conscience law,” and cooperate with the Office for Civil Rights’ enforcement activities. The rule also incentivizes posting notices of conscience rights around the workplace.

“Many religious health care personnel and faith‐based medical entities have further alleged that health care personnel are being targeted for their religious beliefs,” the rule says, citing Means v. the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where the federal district court in Michigan dismissed a lawsuit against the Catholic Church after one of its hospitals denied her an emergency abortion.

It also cited Chamorro v. Dignity Health, where a San Francisco state judge ruled that a Catholic hospital had the right to refuse to give a woman a tubal ligation during a scheduled cesarean section because she and her husband didn’t want more children.

As with most Trump administration policies, the new rule faces fierce opposition from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who said he fears that it will only bar access to healthcare services and intrude on women’s reproductive rights.

“There is little evidence that in drafting the Rule, HHS considered the impact to patients,” Becerra wrote in a comment letter in March 2018, when the rule was still just in the proposal stage.

He added that the rule appeared to target California, noting its reference to the state’s Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, which requires clinics to post notices about government-sponsored abortion services. The law was successfully contested in federal court by non-profit groups opposing abortion.

Becerra’s office also filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking more information about the proposed rule last year, but did not receive a response.

”President Trump believes he can legalize the refusal of basic medical care for Americans. 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,” Becerra said in a statement Thursday.

Hinting at a legal challenge, he added, “California stands ready to take any and all legal action to prove the Trump Administration wrong.”

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