Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Trump to Protect Religious Health Workers Who Oppose Abortion

Updated on
  • New office would shield providers with conscience objections
  • Advocates for women, LGBTQ fear discrimination in care access

The Trump administration is moving to protect health-care workers who object to providing certain treatments, such as abortion or sterilization, for moral or religious reasons.

The civil-rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services is setting up a new division that will enforce laws that let health-care workers opt out of providing some care based on their religious views. It’s the latest move by the Trump administration to push policies important to its most ardent supporters through executive action.

The decision, which comes a day before the president is set to address a major anti-abortion rally in Washington, raised criticism from advocates for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

“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,” Roger Severino, the director of the HHS civil-rights office, said in a statement.

Defense of Conscience

In May, President Donald Trump ordered his agencies to “vigorously” enforce existing laws protecting religious freedom, including in health care. The new division will back health-care providers who object to procedures and research in areas including abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide, according to its website.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the move could harm women seeking abortions and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. Advocates for LGBTQ individuals say the rules could increase discrimination against a population that already faces difficulties in getting care.

“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,” Sarah Warbelow, Legal Director of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “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.”

Ethical Codes

The American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association say in their ethical codes that health-care providers shouldn’t discriminate against patients based on characteristics like gender identity, sexual orientation or race. While the groups say health workers should be able to act according to their religious or moral views, they say patient care should come first.

“Freedom to act according to conscience is not unlimited,” the AMA says. It says doctors who decline to perform treatments should help patients get care elsewhere.

As for nurses, “they can only object and withdraw when they can ensure that nursing care is available for the patient,” said Liz Stokes, director of the American Nurses Association’s Center for Ethics and Human Rights. “The nurse has to make sure that the nurse expresses that conscience-based refusal to the appropriate authority, and it has to be done in a timely manner, and there have to be alternative arrangements made for the patient.”

Anti-abortion associations welcomed the move.

“We thank President Trump for standing up in bold defense of conscience rights,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement. The move “affirms the right of all Americans not to be forced to participate in abortion.”

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