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Trump administration gives ‘license to discriminate’ to health care providers

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Today, the Trump administration established yet more barriers for women, LGBTQ people, and others to access the urgent care they need by providing additional protections to health care workers who refuse to provide treatment because of their moral or religious beliefs.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of a new office under the HSS Office for Civil Rights, called the “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division,” which will be charged with restoring “federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom,” according to an HHS press release.

At a news conference this morning, the director of HHS’ Office for Civil Rights, Roger Severino, explained why the creation of the new division fell squarely within his purview. “Never forget that religious freedom is a primary freedom, that it is a civil right that deserves enforcement and respect,” he said, according to NPR.

HHS has yet to release comprehensive information about the primary focus and day-to-day operation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. At least one function of the office, however, will be to receive and investigate complaints from health professionals who have been or forced or pressured into performing medical procedures they object to on religious grounds—for example, a nurse who refused to provide aftercare for a woman who’d just received an abortion, or an endocrinologist who was punished for refusing to prescribe hormones to transgender people. The protections would also apply to health professionals engaged in training and research.

Advocacy groups responded with dismay to the news.

“This is the Trump-Pence administration using the government office whose mission is to protect against discrimination, to instead to give providers license to discriminate. Planned Parenthood condemns this action,” said Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government relations at Planned Parenthood.

“This extreme new HHS rule will quite possibly cost lives by giving medical providers cover not to treat people they disagree with, no matter how life-threatening or urgent the medical need,” said Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, in a press release. “The rule grants an illegal license to discriminate against transgender people who come to the doctor or emergency room for help when our lives are in danger due to sickness, violence, or injury.”

Yet there have also been expressions of hope even as the administration continues to erode civil liberties for minorities: “The overwhelming majority of people of faith support health care access for women and LGBTQ people,” said the National LGBTQ Task Force in a press release. “There is no contradiction between meeting your duty to care for all people and living by your moral and religious conviction. All people deserve access to care, including transgender people, those seeking assisted suicide, and those seeking reproductive health services such as an abortion or sterilization.”

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