It’s official — Donald Trump’s administration is establishing an office that will allow a license to discriminate in health care if providers have religious or moral objections to procedures or patients, and LGBT and other civil rights groups are incensed.
Dubbed the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom, it will be located within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, National Public Radio reports. Acting Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan announced the new division’s creation today; reports earlier this week had said HHS was considering it.
Hargan and others at the announcement ceremony, including HHS civil rights chief Roger Severino, provided few details, The Washington Post reports. A “Conscience and Religious Freedom” page, which appeared on the HHS website today, is vague but shows why civil rights groups are worried.
“OCR enforces laws and regulations that protect conscience and prohibit coercion on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide (among others) in HHS-funded or conducted programs and services,” the page says. Civil rights groups fear the “among others” would allow discrimination against, say, transgender patients seeking transition procedures, or people with HIV seeking treatment.
“We may not know exactly what this new division will look like in practice, but we do know that this means they prioritize religious liberty over the health and civil rights of women, transgender people, and others,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a press release. They are prioritizing providers’ beliefs over patients’ health and lives. This administration isn’t increasing freedom — they’re paving the way for discrimination.”
“We are not fooled: The new office announced this morning is meant to make it easier for people to discriminate, not to protect people of faith,” said a statement issued by Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “Health professionals have a duty to care for all their patients regardless of one's gender identity, sexual orientation, faith, creed, race, political views, gender, or disability, and no one should be denied care for being who they are. The overwhelming majority of people of faith support health care access for women and LGBTQ people. There is no contradiction between meeting your duty to care for all people and living by your moral and religious conviction. All people deserve access to care, including transgender people, those seeking assisted suicide, and those seeking reproductive health services such as an abortion or sterilization.”
Added Hunan Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow: “LGBTQ people need the Department of Health and Human Services to enforce nondiscrimination protections in federal health programs. The creation of an unnecessary new division that is likely to promote a license to discriminate diverts needed enforcement resources and encourages discrimination against LGBTQ people. Every American deserves access to quality health care, and that should not be determined by the personal opinions of individual medical providers or administrative staff.”
From Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center: “This extreme new HHS rule will quite possibly cost lives by giving medical providers cover not to treat people they disagree with, no matter how life-threatening or urgent the medical need. The rule grants an illegal license to discriminate against transgender people who come to the doctor or emergency room for help when our lives are in danger due to sickness, violence, or injury. It’s also an attack against all people, including many in the transgender community, who rely on critical care ranging from reproductive services to emergency services to HIV medication. The agency charged with protecting our health is now inviting providers to deny life-saving medical care to people based on who we are. Once again, the Trump-Pence administration has shown they will do everything in their power to undermine the health and survival of transgender people. We will see them in court.”
From Annise Parker, president and CEO of Victory Institute: “Today the Trump administration opened the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people seeking health services – an alarming move that exemplifies Severino’s total disregard for improving health care in America. Severino is an anti-LGBTQ activist who has long fought against equality for our community, ignoring science and reality to justify his crusade. His politicization of healthcare takes us down a dangerous path that will harm not just the LGBTQ community, but other communities targeted by those opposed to equality. Yet he is just one of many anti-LGBTQ activists appointed to the Trump administration, despite almost no LGBTQ people appointed to key departments or positions. Personnel is policy, and the lack of LGBTQ perspectives and voices in this administration inevitably leads to policies that target and harm our community.”
Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, which serves LGBT elders, said this population is particularly at risk, as” 85 percent of nonprofit long-term care providers in the United States are religiously affiliated,” He added, “It is unimaginable for LGBT elders, at this time in their lives, to be refused the care they need and deserve. Everyone has the freedom, under the first amendment, to practice their religion, but when deep morals or religious convictions overshadow the responsibility to provide care to sick and dying people, it is dangerous for our nation.”
The division’s creation “reverses an Obama-era policy that barred health care workers from refusing to treat transgender individuals, or people who have had or are seeking abortions,” NPR notes. A Christian health care group, Francisco Alliance, filed suit over the policy, and a judge blocked its enforcement while the case made its way through the courts.
It continues the Trump administration's attack on LGBT and women's rights in the name of "religious freedom," an attack that includes the Justice Department's issuance in October of guidelines allowing government workers and contractors to claim religious exemptions from providing certain services and even hiring certain people.