New Religious Liberty Unit to Defend Medical Workers Who Object to Abortion, Other Procedures
White House order paved way for more aggressive protection of rights of nurses, doctors, other health care providers
Religious conscience and freedom for medical professionals will be further accommodated at one of the largest federal agencies, with the creation of the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The division will protect medical workers whose beliefs preclude their participation in procedures such as abortion, assisted suicide, and gender-change operations.
The new division was announced Thursday morning at a large gathering at HHS headquarters in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of people packed into the first-floor auditorium of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building near the Capitol to laud the Trump administration's creation of a religious conscience office.
The division will be overseen by the HHS Office for Civil Rights, which is headed by Roger Severino, a conservative attorney known for his passion for religious liberty. His wife, Carrie Severino, is chief counsel and policy director at the Judicial Crisis Network.
The move is likely to further endear conservative and evangelical Christians to President Donald Trump, whose May 2017 executive order created the division for "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty."
The order beefed up existing protections for religious believers — as federal law already includes numerous provisions to protect medical workers for their beliefs. In October, Trump also amended the Affordable Care Act's regulations that mandated contraception coverage, according to ABC News.
Private-sector employers can now decline to provide contraception through insurance plans if they have moral or religious objections.
Montse Alvarado, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm, criticized the administration of former President Barack Obama, saying it had forced Americans "to choose between their beliefs and their livelihood."
Alvarado said Obama officials engaged in a "needless and divisive culture war" by forcing issues like contraception onto employers.
Under new rules and with help from the division, officials said nurses and doctors would no longer lose their jobs if they decline to take part in an abortion. Eric Hargan, acting Health and Human Services secretary, told the crowd that previous rules forced many hospitals and care agencies — many run by faith-based groups — to provide services they oppose from a moral or religious standpoint.
"For too long, too many of these health care practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against," said Hargan.
The new division brought praise from some of the top conservative groups on the Right.
"For more than 40 years, federal law has protected the conscience rights of all Americans in the context of health care," said Melanie Israel, a research associate for The Heritage Foundation, in a statement emailed to LifeZette. These protections have allowed for a diversity of values in health care and ensured that individuals can work and live according to their moral and religious beliefs."
"When conscience violations and discrimination occur, it is critical that the administration responds with robust enforcement of federal law."
Israel said people who now object to certain medical procedures or policies will not be forced to take part in them, and will be able to contact the freedom division about other issues too — including religious discrimination.
"When conscience violations and discrimination occur, it is critical that the administration responds with robust enforcement of federal law," Israel said. "This new HHS division will help ensure that health care professionals enjoy the same rights they have had for decades — to not face coercion or discriminatory actions if they decide not to participate in certain procedures because of moral or religious objections."
But the division also brought some controversy, provoking a small protest outside HHS offices by liberal feminist groups.