The Trump administration will create a new division specifically dedicated to protecting healthcare workers who have religious or moral objections to certain medical procedures, could include abortion or gender confirmation surgery for transgender individuals.
Roger Severino, who heads the Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Health and Human Services, announced the creation of the Conscious and Religious Freedom Division Thursday morning. The division will operate as a branch of his office.
“We are institutionalizing a chance in the culture of government [and] HHS to never forget that religious freedom is a primary freedom, that it is a civil right that deserves complete enforcement and respect,” Severino said. “The new division will ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and it’ll be focused exclusively on outreach enforcement and policy-making.”
Protecting religious liberty is a frequent priority for the Trump administration. In May, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that called for more protections for religious organizations, including companies. Then, in October, HHS announced that employers who have a religious or moral objection to birth control may seek an exemption to an Affordable Care Act mandate requiring companies to cover employees’ birth control. (A federal judge later blocked the implementation of that policy.)
The division’s launch was attended by Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan, California Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, among several others. Many singled out performing abortion and offering birth control coverage as medical practices that impede people’s religious rights; Severino specifically cited physician-assisted suicide as another potentially problematic procedure.
Severino also appeared confident that the division had a lot of work to tackle: “Since the election in 2016,” he said, “we’ve now received 34 complaints of conscience violations.”
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Advocates for abortion rights have already denounced the division. Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called it “incredibly dangerous” for women and transgender people. Ben Brown, a Chicago OB-GYN and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, also warned CNBC that the move could create delays in emergency care. “Medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “Denying patients health care is not liberty. Choosing your patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom. Should the administration choose to move forward to implement a discriminatory policy, we will see them in court.”