The Trump administration has created new rules to shield healthcare workers who have religious objections to certain procedures for women, or do not want to provide services to LGBT patients.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Thursday it will create a new division under the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to assist healthcare workers who say they were forced to provide services contradicting their religious or moral beliefs. It will also find and discipline institutions who do not properly allow for these so-called “conscience objections,” according to several news reports.
HHS Acting Secretary Eric Hargan said the new rule was a way to “vigorously uphold the rights of conscience and religious freedom”.
But advocates for women and transgender people say it could have life-threatening consequences and called the rule a “license to discriminate” against gay people and women.
“This is the use of religion to hurt people because you disapprove of who they are,” said Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Centre for Transgender Equality. “Any rule that grants a license to discriminate would be a disgrace and a mockery of the principle of religious freedom we all cherish.”
He added: “That would be an invitation to deny life-saving care.”
Democrats and civil right groups worry the changes could restrict access to health care for some.
“I am deeply troubled by reports of the unconscionable approach being considered by President Trump’s Administration to use the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services as a tool to restrict access to health care for people who are transgender and women,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Health Committee, said in a statement.
“This would be yet another attempt to let ideology dictate who is able to get the care they need. Any approach that would deny or delay health care to someone and jeopardize their wellbeing for ideological reasons is unacceptable. We need to work to ensure everyone has access to quality, affordable health care, no matter who they are.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has threatened to take the policy to court, saying in a press release that “medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care”.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called the rules “a license to discriminate against women and LGBTQ individuals”.
“Religious freedom does not allow people to for
ce their views onto others, especially patients in need of care, as this policy allows,” she said.
Roger Servino, the head of civil-rights enforcement at HHS, has a record of advocating in favor of religious groups and against LGBT rights, a Politico report noted. The former attorney has argued against legalizing same-sex marriage and spoken out against transition surgeries for transgender patients.
HHS previously issued rules allowing companies with religious or moral objections to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees.
The latest move comes as Donald Trump prepares to address the annual March for Life via satellite, making him the first president to speak at the pro-life event.