HHS’s new protections for medical personnel who oppose abortion

By Dave Andrusko

On Thursday it was our pleasure to write about the latest pro-life initiative from the Trump administration: the announcement from the Department of Health and Human Services of the formation of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

This is a very, very important move. As NRLC president Carol Tobias explained

“We commend the Trump Administration for creating a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within its Office for Civil Rights that will focus on enforcement of and compliance with existing laws that protect conscience.

“We are pleased to see this new division in the face of a growing number of actions by some state governments to compel participation in abortions by health care providers and others, and because the Obama Administration had effectively adopted a non-enforcement policy with respect to existing federal conscience-protection laws.

“Rights of conscience are extremely important to the right-to-life movement to protect medical professionals, religious institutions, and employers from being forced to participate in abortion.”

At a morning event to announce the addition of the division, OCR Director Roger Severino said, “Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced. 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. For too long, governments big and small have treated conscience claims with hostility instead of protection, but change is coming and it begins here and now.”

I was curious to see how the Media Establishment would respond. Some stories, of course, bordered on the hysterical. No telling what will happen next if medical personnel were not forced to violate their consciences.

But, lo and behold, of all places, the New York Times did a decent job. Robert Pear and Jeremy W. Peters gave those who disapproved their turn but largely focused on the “new steps to protect doctors, nurses and other health workers who have religious or moral objections to performing abortions…”

Under the headline, “Health Workers Who Oppose Abortion Get New Protections,” Pear and Peters and made clear that the new division would be eager to be responsive to complaints. [Underlining added.]

Administration officials urged people to report discrimination to a new unit of the federal government: the conscience and religious freedom division of the office for civil rights at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Roger Severino, the director of the civil rights office, promised that he and his staff would thoroughly investigate every complaint.

For too long, Mr. Severino said, the federal government has ignored such complaints or treated them with “outright hostility.”

As we discussed on Thursday, POLITICO’s Dan Diamond and Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, “The department’s leaders have repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for rolling back regulations dating to the George W. Bush administration that legally insulated health care workers while affirming their religious freedoms. Roger Severino, the Trump administration appointee who now leads the HHS civil rights office, has repeatedly stressed that strengthening conscience protections for health care workers is a top priority for his office.”

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also welcomed the creation of the new division.

“Health care professionals do not put their consciences in a blind trust when they pursue medical training. The Department of Health and Human Services’ announcement of this new office to safeguard conscience protection is a welcome and positive move. I am thankful 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. Healthcare professionals should be freed up to care for the bodies and minds of their patients not tied up by having their own consciences bound.”