HHS creates new religious freedoms division


The Trump administration has announced a new division within the U.S. Health & Human Services Department that aims to protect health care providers who have religious or moral objections to performing medical services, such as abortion.

In a Jan. 18 announcement, HHS Office for Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division will focus on outreach, policy making, and vigorously enforcing existing federal laws that protect conscience and religious freedom rights. The new branch will enable health providers to file conscience and religious freedom complaints, which will then be investigated by the division.

Dr. Jack Ende

“Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced,” Mr. Severino said in a statement. “No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice. For too long, governments big and small have treated conscience claims with hostility instead of protection, but change is coming and it begins here and now.”

Opinions on the new division from physicians and medical associations were mixed. The American College of Physicians (ACP) cautioned that the division’s creation must not lead to discrimination against any category of class of patients, as guided by medical professions’ ethical obligations.

“ACP would be particularly concerned if the new HHS division takes any actions that would result in denial of access to appropriate health care based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or other personal characteristics,” ACP President Jack Ende, MD, said in a statement. “ACP will evaluate the newly formed division as it begins operating, informed by our ethics and public policy positions. Those state that physicians have a professional obligation to not discriminate against any class of patients, but also that a physician may have a conscientious objection to providing a specific medical service to a patient.”

The Catholic Medical Association (CMA) applauded the new HHS division, saying it’s about time that the religious and conscience rights of health providers were protected by the federal government. In the past, health providers could be drawn into medical activities in a hospital or health care system that they found moral objectionable with no recourse, said Kathleen Raviele, MD, a board member for the Catholic Medical Association and a Decatur, Ga.–based ob.gyn.
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“The fact that individual health care providers are going to have a place to go if they feel they have valid complaint is really momentous,” Dr. Raviele said in an interview. “It’s respecting the rights of all of us and not just some special interest groups ... I also think [the new division] will make states [and] hospital systems less likely to try to infringe on people’s conscientious rights.”

The HIV Medicine Association called the formation of the new HHS division appalling, and said the office appears to protect health care providers who discriminate against vulnerable patients, such as women, LGBTQ patients, and minorities.

“The new division, designed to ‘protect’ health care providers who discriminate in the care and services they provide, defies the fundamental medical ethic to first do no harm,” HIV Medicine Association Chair Melanie Thompson, MD, said in a statement. “Using federal dollars to shield providers who choose to discriminate rather than protect vulnerable patients and provide services to improve their health is counter to the mission of HHS, wasteful of scarce federal funds, and will result in delayed or lack of care for vulnerable individuals, threatening their health and lives.”

The HHS Conscience and Religious Freedom Division is necessary to address the “sustained attack on conscience rights,” said Jane Orient, MD, executive director for the conservative Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.

“Many powerful and influential forces are attempting to impose their views on Americans, predominantly on Christians, forcing them to perform acts they believe to be immoral, [or risk] losing their job, their business, their livelihood, or even their life savings,” Dr. Orient said in an interview. “...We hope that the OCR will help to return our nation to its foundational principles of freedom and respect for people of conscience.”

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