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Proposed HHS 'Conscience' Rule a Danger to LGBT People

Roger Severino
HHS civil rights chief Roger Severino

It would create a powerful new entity that would shield those who object to gender transition procedures or other types of care.

The Trump administration is planning to broaden the so-called conscience protections for health care workers who object to participating in certain procedures, a move that could result in denial of care to LGBT people or women seeking contraceptives or abortions.

A proposed rule would increase the power of the Department of Health and Human Services' civil rights office to "shield these workers and punish organizations that don't allow them to express their religious and moral objections," Politico reports. It is under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget

The rule would set up a new division of the civil rights office that would be equal in power to the two existing divisions, one of which enforces federal civil rights laws, the other privacy laws, according to Politico. The new division "would conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers to opt out of procedures when they have religious or moral objections" and provide technical support to outside groups working to strengthen conscience provisions, the site reports.

The Obama administration had rolled back some of the conscience protections put in place by the George W. Bush administration, to the chagrin of some conservatives. But opponents of the Bush-era rules said they were overly broad, as "some workers cited their when denying fertility treatment to lesbian couples or not providing ambulance transportation to a pregnant woman seeking an abortion," Politico notes.

LGBT advocates and other civil rights groups say that more far-reaching conscience protections could endanger patient care. "This is the use of religion to hurt people because you disapprove of who they are," Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality told Politico. "Any rule that grants a license to discriminate would be a disgrace and a mockery of the principal of religious freedom we all cherish."

Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, released this statement: "Religious liberty doesn't include a right to be exempt from laws protecting our health or barring discrimination. It doesn't mean a right to refuse to transport a patient in need because she had an abortion. It doesn't mean refusing care to a patient because she is transgender. Medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care. Denying patients health care is not liberty. Choosing your patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom. Should the administration choose to move forward to implement a discriminatory policy, we will see them in court."

The Human Rights Campaign also denounced the proposal. "If adopted, this proposal would be another harmful attack on LGBTQ people by Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Health care workers have a professional and ethical obligation to provide health care to all who need it," said Sarah Warbelow, HRC legal director, in a press release. "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. The Human Rights Campaign will fight this proposed rule--and all others like it--that seek to devalue the humanity of LGBTQ people."

Lucas Acosta, the Democratic National Committee's director of LGBTQ media, issued a statement as well: "Once again, women and the LGBTQ community are under attack from the Trump-Pence administration. Days before the anniversary of the Women's March, Republicans are giving health workers a license to discriminate against women and members of the LGBTQ community. ... This proposal is further proof that Republicans continue to push forward an agenda completely out of step with the American people and American ideals. Democrats will continue to focus on how to improve access to health care for all Americans regardless of gender, orientation, or income."

Roger Severino, the Trump appointee who heads the HHS civil rights office, has a history of opposition to LGBT rights, including marriage equality and transition-related care for transgender people, Politico reports. "On the basis of religious teachings, moral reasoning, scientific evidence, and medical experience, many have strong grounds to hold that one's sex is an immutable characteristic," Severino and a coauthor wrote in a 2016 Heritage Foundation report. "Many involved in providing medical care and those enrolled in health insurance plans have serious objections to participating in or paying for sex-reassignment surgeries or gender transitions."

Announcement of the new rule could come just before Friday's March for Life, an annual anti-abortion event held on or around the anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide. Trump is scheduled to address the march via video.

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