Protections expanded for doctors with 'conscience' objections to abortions, other procedures

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) on Thursday said it would beef up protections for doctors and other health care providers who object to procedures including abortion, euthanasia and sterilization.

The new rule followed a 2011 conscience regulation that the Department described as "inadequate" because it only covered three conscience statutes -- as opposed to the 25 covered in the new rule. HHS also outlined "robust" enforcement tools — like conducting investigations and making enforcement referrals to the Justice Department — to ensure that recipients of HHS funds comply with conscience protections.

"The rule provides greater specificity concerning what conscience laws require and ensures that the government or government-funded entities are not unlawfully discriminating against individuals, health care providers, or health care entities," the department said in a fact sheet.

In addition to health care professionals, the rule would protect patients who object to certain procedures, as well as individuals in a "health service or research activity."

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“Finally, laws prohibiting government=funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law," HHS Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said.

“This rule ensures that health care 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. Protecting conscience and religious freedom not only fosters greater diversity in health care, it’s the law."

The final version of the rule will take effect in 60 days. The original proposal, released in January 2018, received more than 242,000 public comments and was one of the first actions taken by HHS' new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, established in 2018.

The regulation came amid a renewed debate surrounding religious freedom and how it intersected with reproductive and LGBT issues. The Trump administration has repeatedly caught criticism from left-leaning groups over an agenda that includes, among other things, shielding Catholic entities from HHS' contraception mandate.

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A host of left-leaning groups decried the new rules.

"REMINDER: Denying kids health care because they have two moms is not religious liberty," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted. "Discrimination is not religious liberty."

The ACLU, in particular, has been on the forefront of a multipronged effort to confront issues related to HHS’ guidance. In 2017, for example, the group sued and effectively forced a Catholic health care organization to provide medical services for people who identified as transgender.

It should say “to confront issues related to HHS’ guidance.” They haven’t really done much other than tweet for this particular rule.

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By contrast, conservative groups celebrated the decision as a win for religious freedom.

"Babies and medical professionals should be free to live in peace without fear of termination," Alison H. Centofante, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Live Action, tweeted.

The socially conservative Family Research Council (FRC) praised the decision and President Trump for fulfilling his promises.

“Today is another crucial moment in which President Trump’s promises are becoming a reality. Every American should be greatly encouraged to know that they have a president who stands up for the freedom to believe and live according to those beliefs without fear of discrimination,” FRC president Tony Perkins said in a press release.

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Trump's Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, also created a "religious-liberty task force" that sought to help protect individuals like Jack Phillips, who famously and controversially refused to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

The administration has also encountered scrutiny over its decision to interpret Title IX — a sex discrimnation statute — as applying to biological characteristics rather than gender identity. In April, Planned Parenthood also urged states to defy HHS' rule blocking Title X family planning grants to clinics that referred patients for abortions.

Shortly after Planned Parenthood's president made that request, a federal court in Washington blocked the administration's rule.