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Trump Administration rolling out new conscience protection unit at HHS

US Department of Health and Human Services building

SAUL LOEB | AFP

John Burger - published on 01/18/18

Health and Human Services will focus on medical professionals' complaints of discrimination based on religious belief

The Trump Administration is setting up a new division within the Department of Health and Human Services to help ensure that the conscience rights of doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers will be respected.

The new division, which will be part of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, will not accept complaints from health-care professionals and will be responsible for ensuring that hospitals, clinics and other institutions across the country are accommodating their beliefs, the Washington Post reported.

Politico reported that the change is contained in a proposed rule, which is under review by the White House and which would empower the HHS to shield conscientious objectors in healthcare and “punish organizations that don’t allow them to express their religious and moral objections.”

President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order last year instructing agencies to expand religious liberty under federal law. HHS issued rules in October that provided broad religious and moral exemptions to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers, including for-profit companies, provide no-cost contraception coverage.

“President Trump promised the American people that his administration would vigorously uphold the rights of conscience and religious freedom,” HHS Acting Secretary Eric Hargan said in a release Wednesday night. “That promise is being kept today. The Founding Fathers knew that a nation that respects conscience rights is more diverse and more free, and OCR’s new division will help make that vision a reality.”

The announcement comes two days after Trump issued a proclamation for National Religious Freedom Day, in which he said, “Our Constitution and laws guarantee Americans the right not just to believe as they see fit, but to freely exercise their religion,” and a day before he is scheduled to address the annual March for Life in Washington.

In a draft of its strategic plan for 2018-2022 released last October, HHS used language that many saw as unusually “pro-life.”

“Our ultimate goal is to improve healthcare outcomes for all people, including the unborn, across healthcare settings,” the department said in the plan.

The new development reportedly will establish a \ Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the HHS civil rights office that would conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers to opt out of procedures when they have religious or moral objections, according to Politico. The new division would be a third, co-equal branch with the office’s existing two divisions that focus on federal civil rights laws and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

There was significant opposition to the new move, even before the new announcement, from organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.

“The administration appears set to go far, far beyond the reasonable accommodations that have long existed in our laws. This is the use of religion to hurt people because you disapprove of who they are,” Harper Jean Tobin, the National Center for Transgender Equality’s director of policy, said in a statement. “The vast majority of the medical community is against any form of license to discriminate.”

But Melanie Israel of The Heritage Foundation commented: “Conscience violations continue to occur, and it is critical that the administration responds appropriately. Ensuring that HHS funds do not support morally coercive or discriminatory practices or policies in violation of federal law should not be remotely controversial.”

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