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New office at HHS provides “bite” for conscience protection laws, advocates say

ROGER SEVERINO
Aaron P Bernstein | GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA | AFP
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Catholic Medical Association hails Trump Administration action on protection for healthcare providers.

A new office in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has invited any doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional to file a complaint with the office if he or she feels discriminated against on the basis of religious belief or conscience.

HHS established the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in its Office for Civil Rights Thursday to enforce existing laws that protect the freedom of conscience.

“This is very important,” said Dr. Kathleen Raviele, a board-certified gynecologist in the Atlanta area who serves on the board of the Catholic Medical Association. “Even though there has been a civil rights section of HHS, there really has been no recourse for individuals who are discriminated against in the workplace to bring a case or to sue the organization that discriminated against them.”

If institutions knew there was some “bite” behind conscience protection laws, Dr. Raviele said in an interview, people like Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo, a New York nurse who in 2009 was forced to assist in a second-term abortion or face disciplinary action, “wouldn’t have even been put in that situation.” Institutions “would just know ‘We can’t force this woman to be involved in an abortion or we might lose Medicare or Medicaid funds.'”

Asked how the matter has affected members of the Catholic Medical Association, Dr. Raviele said that some physicians have “trouble getting on insurance plans because they don’t provide certain services.” Physician assistants have reported difficulty finding a job and medical students trying to place in residency programs encounter roadblocks because they “want to follow Catholic teaching regarding reproductive services,” she said.

The Office for Civil Rights is the law enforcement agency within HHS that enforces federal laws protecting civil rights and conscience in health and human services. The OCR already has enforcement authority over several federal conscience protection statutes, the agency said Thursday.

Those include the 1970s-era Church Amendments, which protect the conscience rights of individuals and entities that object to performing or assisting in abortion or sterilization procedures if doing so would be contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Also coming into play is the Weldon Amendment, which denies HHS funding to any federal agency or program, state or local government that discriminates against any health care provider that does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.

Even the Affordable Care Act includes new health care provider conscience protections within the health insurance Exchange program: “No qualified health plan offered through an Exchange may discriminate against any individual health care provider or health care facility because of its unwillingness to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions,” according to one section of the law. Another section protects individual or institutional health care entities from discrimination on the basis of a refusal to assist in causing “the death of any individual, such as by assisted suicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing.”

The department’s website has instructions on how to file complaints.

Roger Severino, director of the Office of Civil Rights, said during a press conference Thursday that laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced.”

Also speaking at the conference was House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who commented, “We face today a time of rising religious persecution. It’s not violent. It’s not done in the name of God. But it is a new orthodoxy, and it is intolerant of dissent.

“Nuns have been forced to put aside their lives of service to the elderly and the sick and have to go to court, humbly requesting that they not be required to pay for practices that end the lives of children,” McCarthy said, referring to the Little Sisters of the Poor lawsuit against the Obama Administration over requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s not the ability to have a religion and practice it in your house of worship; it’s the ability to have a faith and practice your faith wherever you are,” said Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who introduced a 2017 bill defending conscience protections.

In a statement provided to Aleteia, Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association, said the CHA “looks forward to learning more” about the newly established office.

“Conscience is one area that is sacred to all Americans. It is best protected by promoting respect and dialogue especially in a pluralistic society,” said Sister Keehan, a very public and strong ally of President Barack H. Obama in his efforts to pass the ACA in 2010, and an equally vocal critic of President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to dismantle “Obamacare.”

Dr. Raviele, in an interview, responded to objections that have been expressed that religious beliefs might interfere with good medical care, especially in emergency situations.

“If a woman came into the ER and she had had an abortion and a complication during the abortion, you could take care of her,” she said. “We’re caring for that situation; we’re not saying because you had an abortion I’m not going to deal with your retained placenta or heavy bleeding. If somebody comes in and has an infected uterus and a 16-week baby, the baby is not going to survive. We’re not violating our conscience by inducing labor in the woman because this is going to save her life and the baby has no chance of survival. In this day and age there is almost no situation where you would say we have to abort the baby on an emergent situation. It’s always because there’s something going on with the mother, health-wise or physically.”

 

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