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Democrats: Trump’s HHS Conscience Protection Office Will Restrict Abortion Access

St. Vincent Medical Center, a Catholic hospital near downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) applauded the Trump administration for ending Health and Human Services’ “silent refusal” to defend the rights of anti-abortion religious organizations and allow healthcare workers to opt out of performing certain procedures.

Some Democrats publicly criticized the new office, arguing it would lead to limited access to abortion services.

According to HHS, the new Division on Conscience and Religious Liberty within the Office of Civil Rights will handle conscience protection complaints from healthcare professionals over their moral and religious opposition to abortion and assisted suicide.

“New offices, great words, or even new laws will have little effect unless every generation recommits to American ideals, embraces America’s past, and stands beside their fellow citizens for America’s future. If we do not, the kings and emperors of old will be proven right. The last great hope of freedom on this earth will perish because it forgot who it was,” McCarthy said at the unveiling of the new office last week.

“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,” he added.

Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights, said at the press conference last Thursday that his office has received 34 complaints of conscience protection violations since the beginning of the last year.

“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,” he said. “We are saying, with the launch of this division, you do not need to shed your religious identity, you do not need to shed your moral convictions to be a part of the public square.”

McCarthy referenced the battle over abortion in his home state of California.

“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. In my own state of California, pregnancy centers devoted to saving lives are forced against their deepest beliefs to advertise for an abortion industry bankrolled by the state,” he said.

“Now, in the past, this department’s silent refusal to defend our rights sent a very clear message: Now is not the time for freedom. It is time for you to conform. What a difference one year makes. This same agency is now opening a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within its Office of Civil Rights devoted to nothing more than treating people fairly and with justice. To everyone in this agency, I personally want to say thank you,” he added.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who joined McCarthy at the unveiling, introduced the Conscience Protection Act to “amend the Public Health Service Act to prohibit governmental discrimination against providers of health services that are not involved in abortion.”

“The free exercise of religion seems to be misunderstood by some. It’s not the ability to have a religion and practice it in your place of worship. It’s the ability to have a faith and live your faith wherever you are,” he said at the unveiling of the HHS office. “If you have a faith and you can only practice it in your certain place of worship, you don’t have real religious freedom. You have allowance to be able to go where you want to go when the government chooses for you to go there. It’s not who we are.”

Democrats have expressed opposition to the new office over concerns that it will prohibit access to abortion services.

“This would be yet another attempt to let ideology dictate who is able to get the care they need,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement. “Any approach that would deny or delay healthcare to someone and jeopardize their wellbeing for ideological reasons is unacceptable.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) tweeted about his opposition to the office as well.

“If these deeply disturbing reports are true, this HHS action will harm women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and their Constitutional rights. Permitting providers to discriminate against patients in need of care for ideological reasons is simply wrong,” Blumenthal wrote.

HHS Acting Secretary Eric Hargan argued that the federal government and some state governments “have hounded religious hospitals and the men and women who staff them, forcing them to provide or refer for services that violate their consciences, when they only wish to serve according to their religious beliefs.”

In response to the creation of the new office, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said religious freedom “should not mean that our healthcare providers have a license to discriminate or impose their beliefs on others.”

The HHS Office for Civil Rights also announced “a new proposed rule to enforce 25 existing statutory conscience protections for Americans involved in HHS-funded programs, which protect people from being coerced into participating in activities that violate their consciences, such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide.” The public can submit comments on the proposal over a 60-day period.