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New HHS Division Aims to Protect Religious Rights of Healthcare Workers

Healthcare workers who object to performing medical services based on religious or moral beliefs will now find some recourse for refusing service under the Trump administration. On Thursday, January 18, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it would be creating a new division under its Office for Civil Rights called the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom. The stated goal of this division would be to protect the rights of healthcare workers – including doctors, nurses, hospitals and others – to refuse service based on religious or moral grounds.

How these protections might be granted and upheld remains to be seen, particularly in light of existing antidiscrimination laws that bar healthcare workers from denying service based on protected classes like gender or religious affiliation.

Critics argue that the creation of this division is a slippery slope. If a doctor can deny services to a woman seeking an abortion, then that doctor may also refuse to treat transgendered patients, those who follow a different religion or other patients with whom he disagrees. Under former President Obama, healthcare workers were prohibited from discriminating against transgendered patients and those seeking abortions. Opponents of the latest move by HHS see the creation of this division as a reversal of this policy and worry that it may limit access to care for certain groups.

On Friday, January 19, President Trump addressed pro-life and anti-abortion groups in the March for Life, an annual rally held in Washington, D.C. around the anniversary of the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade that decriminalized abortion. This year marks the 45th march, and Trump is the first president to address the cause directly via satellite. Until 2011, Trump supported abortion but has since reversed his position.

The highly conservative Trump administration has made it clear that it intends to support anti-abortion efforts. Proponents of the latest HHS proposal claim it as a victory for pro-life advocates. Eric Hargan, acting secretary for the HHS, claimed that healthcare workers have been “bullied and discriminated against” due to religious and moral convictions, and the new division seeks to protect those workers’ constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Along similar lines, Roger Severino, director for the Office for Civil Rights, said during Thursday's announcement that the new division “will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice.” The Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom will be responsible for reviewing complaints filed by healthcare workers who feel that their rights have been violated.

Religious freedom advocates claim that the Obama administration did little to protect healthcare workers’ rights under existing federal law. Targeted healthcare concerns include abortion and assisted suicide, but opponents fear that religious protections could extend to discriminatory healthcare practices.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is already preparing for legal action should the division create discriminatory policies against women, transgendered people or others. Since Trump took office last January, the Office for Civil Rights has received 34 complaints from healthcare workers claiming discrimination against religious or moral objections.

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