Perhaps the only good thing about the three-day government shutdown was that it temporarily prevented the Trump administration from moving forward with a colossally bad proposal. Last week the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of a new division within its Office of Civil Rights to protect healthcare workers who have “religious conscience” objections to certain procedures their jobs otherwise require them to perform. The new office will be called the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division and it is designed to shield workers who refuse to perform abortions or to treat transgender patients, for example, specifically because the workers have religious objections to the procedures.
Trump used his speech to the crowd gathered for the March for Life on Friday to celebrate the creation of the office. “Today, I’m announcing that we’ve just issued a new proposal to protect conscience rights and religious freedoms of doctors, nurses, and other medical professions. So important.”
Eric Hargan, HSS’s acting secretary, maintained that the new office will prevent the government from bullying healthcare workers with religious objections to performing the requirements of their jobs. “The federal government has hounded religious hospitals…forcing them to provide services that violate their consciences,” Hargan said. “Medical students, too, have learned to do procedures that violate their consciences.”
The move is yet another example of the Trump administration’s willingness to turn the concept of religious liberty into religious discrimination. The potential is ripe for abuse of this new office by evangelicals and fundamentalists who want to impose their religious views on women and on members of the LGBTQ community.
Because the language creating the new office is broad, it is not entirely clear what kinds of objections the new office will support. Certainly, as is already the case, providers will be allowed to refuse to perform abortions and sterilizations. (Many Catholic hospitals refuse to provide these services on a regular basis—even when the health of the mother is at stake.) It is also expected to affect the provision of such services as hormone therapies for transgender people; fertility services for gay, lesbian, or unmarried couples; and certain end-of-life services.
“No one’s medical choices should be limited by somebody else’s religious beliefs,” said Larry Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. “This action will undermine the trust between patient and doctor, inserting religion into a conversation that should be based on medical science and the best interests of the patient.”
Medical ethicists cite a variety of issues with the new rules. Dr. Lainie Ross of the University of Chicago’s MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, quoted in a January 18 Reuters article, asked, “What protections exist if a doctor can choose not to take care of me because of my gender or my sexual orientation or because I have an ectopic pregnancy and don’t know it and I‘m at a Catholic hospital and it’s the only hospital in town?” And Alta Charo, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of law and bioethics, stated, “When the director of the Office of Civil Rights is quoted as saying that ‘No physician should have to choose between helping a sick person or following their personal conscience,’ the director is simply wrong. That choice was made the moment they became physicians.”
In the case of medical students, shouldn’t they be expected to know and understand all the tools that are available to them for their patients, rather than being able to opt out of even learning about some procedures because they have a religious objection? Some might say that, if you find you object to learning how to do your job, that’s a hint that you are going into the wrong field.
When someone needs healthcare, they shouldn’t have to wonder whether their doctor or nurse or pharmacist will actually provide them with medically necessary and legal care. If healthcare workers are unwilling to do their jobs, they should find other employment.