HHS Issues ‘Conscience Rights in Health Care’ Rule to Protect Religious Objectors to Abortion, Assisted Suicide

Photo Credit: Jyn Meyer

WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has announced the issuance of a final rule that is meant to ensure the protection of the conscience rights of medical professionals and others who have objections to abortion or physician-assisted suicide.

“Finally, laws prohibiting government-funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law,” OCR Director Roger Severino said in a statement.

“This rule ensures that healthcare entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the healthcare field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life,” he explained. “Protecting conscience and religious freedom not only fosters greater diversity in healthcare, it’s the law.”

According to Severino’s office, the rule protects healthcare facilities that decline to perform or refer for abortions, as well as professionals who decline to receive training in abortion. Patients who have objections to mental health treatment of children or occupational illness testing are also protected under the law.

The updated rule provides clarification on existing federal conscience protection laws as passed by Congress, and requires healthcare entities to keep records documenting compliance with such statutes, as well as to to submit certifications to HHS that they are indeed following the law.

OCR says that the rule is necessary because some remain confused about whether or not federal or state laws require individuals to participate in abortions or sterlizations, despite the existence of protections such as the Weldon Amendment and the Coats-Snowe Amendment.

“For instance, some advocacy organizations have filed lawsuits claiming that federal or state laws require private religious entities to perform abortions and sterilizations despite the existence of longstanding conscience and anti‐discrimination protections on this topic,” the department outlined in its rule explanation.

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“A patient also sued a secular public hospital for accommodating doctors’ and nurses’ religious objections to abortion in alleged violation of a state law, Washington’s Reproductive Privacy Act,” it stated.

OCR explained that it believes the rule is also needed to educate the public, to encourage those with religious convictions to remain in the healthcare industry, and to urge those whose rights may be violated to file a complaint.

According to reports, HHS received 242,000 comments from the public on the proposed rule, some of whom expressed concern that it would adversely affect women, homosexuals and those who identify as transgender.

“Denying kids health care because they have two moms is not religious liberty. Denying patients IVF because they are unmarried is not religious liberty. Denying patients surgery because they are trans is not religious liberty,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted on Thursday. “Discrimination is not religious liberty.”

However, a number of healthcare professionals who found themselves having to choose between their job or their convictions due to employers who expected them to assist with abortions applauded the development.

“I’ll never forget the day my supervisor ignored the law and forced me to participate in an abortion. I still have nightmares about that day,” said Cathy DeCarlo in a statement released by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). “As an immigrant to America because of the freedom and opportunity I saw here, today I’m hopeful that HHS’ new rule will help make sure that no other nurses or health care professionals will be forced to go through what I did and that their rights will be protected.”

“After 28 years of working as a critical care and emergency room nurse, I never imagined my employer would force me to choose between taking the life of an unborn child and losing my job. But 11 other nurses and I were ordered to assist in abortion even though it violated our religious convictions and contradicted our calling as a medical professional to protect life,” also outlined Fe Esperanza Racpan Vinoya.

“Both New Jersey and federal law prohibited this discrimination. But those laws are only as effective as the willingness of government officials to enforce them,” she added. “Today’s rule helps enforce the law just like any other civil rights law and protect people like me who love serving our patients.”

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