The Trump administration will safeguard the rights of doctors to decline performing procedures they find morally objectionable.
On Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services adopted regulations to guarantee conscience protections for medical professionals. The rule, which will be implemented by the Office of Civil Rights will bar regulators from discriminating against the religious beliefs of doctors and nurses. OCR Director Roger Severino said the protections will prevent practitioners from being shut out of the profession for their beliefs.
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"Laws prohibiting government funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law," Severino said in the announcement. "This rule ensures that healthcare entities and professionals won't be bullied out of the health care field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life."
President Donald Trump has made religious liberty protections a priority since taking office. The administration received more than 200,000 public comments during the review period of its proposal. The administration urged medical companies and other "recipients of HHS funds to provide notice to individuals and entities about their right be free from coercion or discrimination on account of religious beliefs or moral convictions." It singled out assisted suicide and abortion as two areas of particular concern for potential discrimination as some states have attempted to force medical professionals or other clinics to participate in those practices.
"The Department has also witnessed an increase in lawsuits against State and local laws that plaintiffs allege violate conscience or unlawfully discriminate," the rule says. It pointed to a California law that forced pro-life pregnancy centers to promote abortion in their offices or face massive fines—a law that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in June. The agency said it wanted to avoid similar infringements on religious liberty and conscience protections in the future.
"This final rule revises existing regulations to ensure vigorous enforcement of Federal conscience and anti‐discrimination laws applicable to the Department, its programs, and recipients of HHS funds," the rule says. "The Department anticipates that this final rule will result in greater public familiarity with Federal conscience and anti‐discrimination laws, and may inform both State and local governments and health care institutions of their obligations, and individual and institutional health care entities of their rights, under those laws."
Pro-life and religious groups praised the administration for working to protect their rights. Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, said that participating in abortion, assisted suicide, or other objectionable practices should not be mandatory for anyone who aspires to become a doctor.
"Those who serve our nation's sick in the health care industry, or who are training to do so, should not be forced to violate their conscience in the process," Mancini said in a statement. "No one should be forced to participate in life-ending procedures like abortion or similar activities that go against their religious beliefs or moral convictions."
The Catholic Association said that the new protections will help avoid a religious litmus test in the medical industry. Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a legal adviser at the Association, said that while numerous federal regulations have been passed by Congress, enforcement has been mixed. The new regulation would provide a "regulatory backbone to the First Amendment conscience rights of Americans working in the medical profession." Her colleague, senior fellow Ashley McGuire, said workers' conscience rights had been trampled on in recent years due to pressure from powerful lobbying networks led by Planned Parenthood and NARAL.
"No healthcare worker should ever be forced to choose between their practice or their faith," she said in a statement. "That principle is enshrined in countless laws and regulations but has been violated for far too long. Today's regulation restates our nation's commitment to conscience rights in the healthcare industry."
The final rule is scheduled to go into effect in 60 days.