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HHS rule protecting conscience rights lauded

WASHINGTON (BP) — Religious liberty and pro-life advocates have commended the Trump administration’s new rule protecting freedom of conscience for health care providers.

The final rule — issued May 2 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — provides for the enforcement of 25 federal laws protecting conscience rights that were not enforced by the Obama administration.

The rule is designed to protect the freedom of individuals and institutions in health care with objections to participating in such procedures as abortion, assisted suicide and sterilization that violate their consciences or religious beliefs.

President Trump announced the rule during a National Day of Prayer event in the White House Rose Garden, saying, “Together, we are building a culture that cherishes the dignity and worth of human life. Every child, born and unborn, is a sacred gift from God.”

The violations of conscience in recent years included reports by nurses in at least Illinois, New Jersey and New York that they were threatened with the loss of their jobs if they refused to participate in abortions.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, expressed his gratitude “that HHS recognizes how imperiled conscience rights have been in recent years in this arena and is actively working and leading to turn the tide in the other direction.”

The rule “comes as a conclusion to multiple positive moves by [HHS] to safeguard conscience protection,” Moore said in an ERLC news release. “Health care professionals should be freed up to care for the bodies and minds of their patients, not tied up by having their own consciences bound.”

The ERLC, which offered public comment on the proposed rule last year, had made HHS enforcement of conscience rights of health care providers a priority in its 2019 legislative agenda.

The new rule — titled “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care” — is the latest in a series of Trump administration actions to protect freedom of conscience through HHS. In January 2018, the department established its Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. In November, HHS issued final regulations protecting employers with a religious or moral objection to the 2011 abortion/contraception mandate under Obama that required them to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions.

Alliance Defending Freedom said its clients in the health care field “have faced discrimination and even have lost their jobs because of their commitment to saving life.”

“We commend the Trump administration and HHS for this commonsense rule that simply ensures longstanding federal conscience laws are enforced so that no American is forced to choose between violating their beliefs and serving those most in need,” ADF legal counsel Kellie Fiedorek said in a written release.

Catherine Glenn Foster, president of Americans United for Life, said in a news release the rule helps fill the gap “between federal conscience rights laws in theory and health care practitioners exercising their conscience rights in practice.”

A 2011 rule implemented under President Obama covered only three conscience protection laws, while the new rule “provides significant tools and mechanisms” to enforce 25 congressionally approved protections, according to a fact sheet from HHS.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. — a leading congressional defender of the sanctity of human life and religious liberty — said in a written statement, “Under President Barack Obama, the [HHS] Office of Civil Rights absolutely refused to enforce the law — that was unethical and unfair. Courageous providers … had no recourse against this unjust discrimination.”

The rule applies to all government entities as well as private doctors, health care providers, schools that provide medical training and health insurance plans that accept federal funding.

Leading advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights criticized the rule.

“This so-called Conscience Rule is nothing more or less than a government-sanctioned attack on [LGBT] people and on women seeking reproductive health care,” said Richard Burns, interim chief executive officer of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. “This Denial of Care Rule protects [already existing] discrimination and gives it a governmental blessing.”

A 2009 survey of more than 2,800 members of faith-based medical associations found 39 percent reported they had faced discrimination from administrators or faculty because of their “moral, ethical or religious beliefs,” HHS reported. Also, 32 percent of those surveyed by The Polling Co. said they had been pressured to refer a patient for a procedure to which they objected.