The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) has announced the creation of a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in their Office for Civil Rights. The division aims to address concerns over sensitive subjects such as birth control, abortions, and treatment of the LGBTQ community. In addition to providing a center for complaints regarding religious discrimination, the division is pushing for the approval of a motion that seeks to protect medical personnel who refuse to perform treatments that violate their personal beliefs. The move has caused concern from human rights groups, who believe this office could be used to discriminate.
The formation of the office was well-received by the religious right and pro-life groups. The Family Research Council’s vice president of government affairs, David Christensen, said of the decision, “We think the Trump administration should set an example in enforcing the multiple conscience laws that have been passed since the 1970s to prevent the government from punishing people who have objections to participating in abortions.”
Groups opposed to the new office argue that laws against discrimination are still weak in the medical field. A Michigan couple whose newborn was refused treatment by a pediatrician due to her parent’s sexual orientation acknowledged their inability to sue, stating, “When we tell people about it, they don’t believe us. They say, ‘(Doctors) can’t do that. That’s not legal.’ And we say, ‘Yes it is.’”
Similarly, opponents argue that these rules could lead to lack of effective medical care. In 2016, a woman who was refused treatment during a miscarriage lost her appeal against Mercy Health Partners, a Catholic hospital. According to the suit, Tamesha Means checked into the hospital when her water broke at 18 weeks. Despite pain, bleeding, and a spinal infection, the doctors refused to see her until she began to deliver her baby, who did not survive. Means’ suit was dismissed because the hospital had complied with its Catholic health care directives.
In contrast, a Catholic nurse’s lawsuit was dismissed after she was forced to perform a second-term abortion. Facing disciplinary action from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo’s claim was rejected because of the research funding the hospital had received from the National Institute of Health. The hospital did not change its imposing policy until 2013, permitting employees to object to forcibly performing abortions.
With cases such as Cenzon-DeCarlo’s in mind, the fifty-two page proposed motion outlines protections provided to individuals unwilling to participate in a wide variety of medical activities, from assisted suicide to occupational illness testing. The proposed laws, referred to as “Federal health care conscience and associated anti-discrimination laws,” are a welcome addition to individuals who see providing the aforementioned medical services would be a violation of their moral beliefs.
HHS’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) director stated Roger Severino, “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.” Severino, a Harvard Law graduate and former DOJ Civil Rights employee, is prominent in the field of civil and religious rights. A well-known opponent of LGBTQ rights and abortions, Severino was criticized by progressive groups in April 2017 as being unclear in his approach over his office’s policies.
While accommodation for religious beliefs is the purported purpose of the new office, overreach in religious liberty exemptions is a concern. A leaked confidential document from the Office of Management and Budget attempted to create certain rules which could exempt companies from providing birth control for broad, undefined moral objections, cutting birth control for large quantities of women. This move was later blocked in December by federal courts, who described the rules as having “remarkable breadth.”
Although the American Medical Association (AMA) has yet to comment on the proposed laws and office, their code of ethics supports a physician’s right to choose which patient to serve, while emphasizing access to medical care for all people. Many fear that a doctor’s choice to deny treatment based on religious objections could leave patients in underserved communities with no choice for medical treatment.
For more information on the HHS Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, visit their website at https://www.hhs.gov/conscience.
Kelly Larios is a History major studying at La Sierra University. She hopes to become an expert in international law, expanding human rights in third-world countries.