Trump's HHS Religious Freedom Rule Protects Pro-Life Health Care Workers from Abortion Mandates

Doctor holding rosary

On Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized new rules restoring freedom of conscience and religious freedom in health care, especially surrounding the issue of abortion. According to the new rule, the Obama administration had blocked a 2008 religious freedom rule in 2009, replacing it with a much-weakened version in 2011. The new rule restores the strength of numerous legal protections passed by Congress.

"Finally, laws prohibiting government-funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law," Roger Severino, director of HHS's Office of Civil Rights, said in a statement. "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. Protecting conscience and religious freedom not only fosters greater diversity in healthcare, it’s the law."

The Obama administration, especially in the wake of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), fought to force pro-life companies — even the Little Sisters of the Poor – to cover various forms of contraception, including abortifacients.

The new HHS rule fulfilled the promise of President Donald Trump's religious freedom executive order in May 2017. According to a study last year, that executive order played a critical role in allowing faith-based charities to provide health care to 13.7 million Americans.

"One of the freedoms Americans have cherished most is the freedom to live according to their faith and conscience, free from government coercion," Kellie Fiedorek, legal counsel at the Christian law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, ADF clients and other nurses, doctors, and health care providers have faced discrimination and even have lost their jobs because of their commitment to saving life."

"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," said Fe Esperanza Racpan Vinoya, one of twelve nurses who filed suit against the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey after the hospital sought to require them to help abortion cases.

"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," Vinoya 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."

"My faith in God and the Catholic Church’s teachings about the value of all human life inspired my career in nursing and encouraged me to never harm or intentionally take the life of an innocent person. I’ll never forget the day my supervisor ignored the law and forced me to participate in an abortion," said Cathy DeCarlo, who sued New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital. "I still have nightmares about that day."

"The pregnancy care center I help lead informs pregnant moms about all their options—parenting, placing a child for adoption, and abortion. We offer hope, encouragement, and practical support. But the state of California tried to force us to speak a message we didn’t believe, refer for free abortions, and turn our walls into a billboard for the abortion industry," Heidi Matzke, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra (2018), said.

"Thankfully, the Supreme Court ruled that the government can’t force us to speak a message that contradicts the very core of who we are and why we exist and today’s announcement from HHS sends that same, important message," Matzke added.

Other religious freedom organizations praised the HHS rules.

"Without these conscience protections, health care professionals across America risk discrimination for refusing to perform, facilitate, or refer for procedures that they believe are unethical," Stephanie Taub, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. "We are grateful to the Trump administration for once again protecting religious liberty."

"There is currently a gap between federal conscience rights laws in theory and health care practitioners exercising their conscience rights in practice. The rule helps fill this gap by educating health care providers and practitioners about federal conscience protection laws, ensuring employers comply with those laws, and enforcing the laws when they are violated," Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, said in a statement.

Pro-abortion and LGBT groups attacked the new rules, however.

"Trump just announced a finalized rule that would allow healthcare providers to deny critical services because of the provider's personal beliefs. A patient's health should ALWAYS come first. This is dangerous and unconscionable," NARAL tweeted.

"The Trump-Pence administration’s latest attack threatens LGBTQ people by permitting medical providers to deny critical care based on personal beliefs," David Stacy, government affairs director at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) said in a statement.

"The administration’s decision puts LGBTQ people at greater risk of being denied necessary and appropriate health care solely based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Everyone deserves access to medically necessary care and should never be turned away because of who they are or who they love," Stacy added.

There is little proof of this HRC claim, however.

The rules do indeed reference "gender dysphoria" — the persistent identification with the gender opposite a person's biological sex — but the rules suggest HHS should examine complaints "on a case-by-case basis."

The new rules reference three situations in which health care providers expressed conscience objections to performing cross-sex surgery. Providers objected to being forced to perform procedures like hysterectomies on healthy women.

Even if the HHS rule allowed broad conscience protections to let providers opt out of performing transgender surgeries, many clinics across the U.S. would still provide those surgeries. Despite the appearance of organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, medical professionals are not in agreement that transgender identity and surgery are the proper treatments for gender dysphoric people. Many transgender people have grown to reject their cross-sex identities, lamenting the surgeries.

For these reasons, many medical professionals consider transgender surgery harmful, and their conscience rights should be protected.

Contrary to the complaints of NARAL and HRC, the new religious freedom rule is a strong step in the right direction, especially after the Obama administration's history of taking the Little Sisters of the Poor to the Supreme Court.

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.