The Trump administration issued a new rule Thursday that excuses health care workers from participating in procedures if they cite religious or conscientious objections.
“Today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students and faith-based charities,” Trump said at the White House during a National Day of Prayer service.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) confirmed the new regulation, known as the “conscience rule,” that allows providers to cite personal reasons, such as religious or moral beliefs, in order to refuse a broad range of services like abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide, reports NPR News.
LGBTQ activists have warned that the new rule could jeopardize health care for LGBTQ people, such as those seeking gender-confirmation procedures or HIV treatment and prevention services, as well as women seeking contraception or abortion.
Trump announced the finalization of the rule during a Rose Garden speech this morning and HHS published the final rule on its website.
“To protect this [religious] heritage my administration has strongly defended religious liberty… just today we finalized new protections of conscience rights of physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students, and faith-based charities. We’ve been wanting to do that for a long time, right, Mike [Pence]?” Trump said at the event.
TRUMP: "Today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students and faith-based charities." (The subtext is that physicians will be able to discriminate against LGTBQ people.) pic.twitter.com/9JI5nbw7va
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 2, 2019
“This final rule replaces a 2011 rule that has proven inadequate, and ensures that HHS implements the full set of tools appropriate for enforcing the conscience protections passed by Congress,” says an HHS press release. “These federal laws protect providers, individuals, and other health care entities from having to provide, participate in, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for, services such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide. It also includes conscience protections with respect to advance directives.” Notably, the Office for Civil Rights is run by Roger Severino, who has a history of anti-LGBTQ activism.
This “conscience rule” could severely affect LGBTQ people living in rural areas where there are few health care options.
“In an attempt to justify more discrimination against transgender people, HHS minimizes the very real pain exemptions like these have caused transgender people,” Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality, told The Advocate via email.
“I would note the case of Evan Minton, a transgender man who was denied a hysterectomy shortly before the surgery after the religiously affiliated hospital at hand canceled the treatment,” she said. “Notably, the doctors and surgeons actually performing the procedure had no issue with doing so. A very similar case was just filed in California last March and another was filed in New Jersey in January.
“We’re confident this rule will make the lives of transgender people across this country harder. No one should have to check the religious affiliation of a hospital in order to make sure they can get the care their doctors have prescribed them. Religious liberty is a bedrock principle for all Americans — including transgender people — but this regulation is a perversion of that principle.”
Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ rights organization, denounced the rule on Thursday. “For two years, the Trump-Pence administration has relentlessly attacked LGBTQ people — including transgender service members, children and workers, said Executive Director Rick Zbur. “But today’s attack is one of their most heartless and dangerous yet. President Trump just stood in front of the White House and told millions of LGBTQ Americans that they should be denied lifesaving health care simply because of who they are or whom they love. That is immoral; it is heartless; it is un-American. Someone else’s personal beliefs should never be used as a license to discriminate. Period.”
Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote: “Once again, this administration shows itself to be determined to use religious liberty to harm communities it deems less worthy of equal treatment under the law. This rule threatens to prevent people from accessing critical medical care and may endanger people’s lives. Religious liberty is a fundamental right, but it doesn’t include the right to discriminate or harm others. Denying patients health care is not religious liberty. Discriminating against patients based on their gender or gender expression is not religious liberty. Medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care.”
“Access to health care can be life-or-death,” said a statement sent by Lucas Acosta and Elizabeth Renda of the Democratic National Committee. “But rather than seek to improve our health care system, the Trump-Pence administration is determined to strip away access to health care from women, people with HIV/AIDS, and LGBTQ people, particularly transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. This license to discriminate is unethical and dangerously undermines the health of some of the most vulnerable among us.
“Every individual deserves access to quality health care and lifesaving emergency services. No one should ever be refused medical care because of who they are. It’s clear Republicans still haven’t learned what the 2018 midterm elections mandated — the American people want more access to health care, not less.”
Mary Alice Carter, executive director of Equity Forward, wrote: “Religious freedom doesn’t mean carte blanche to discriminate, especially in a health care setting. People should never fear that they’re going to be denied care because of their gender, who they love or their past medical decisions. Today’s rule codifies discrimination and it will result in deep harm to patient care. [HHS Secretary] Alex Azar and Roger Severino should be ashamed. This is exactly the opposite of what our health department should stand for.”