Opponents say controversial new HHS ‘religious freedom’ division a ‘prescription for discrimination’

hhs
HHS has created a new "conscience and religious freedom" division under its Office for Civil Rights. (Sarah Stierch/CC BY 4.0)

Opponents reacted swiftly and strongly to an HHS plan to create a “conscience and religious freedom” division, saying the move promotes discrimination against women and LGBTQ patients.

The Trump administration created the new division to protect doctors and other healthcare workers who have moral or religious objections to providing a medical service, such as abortion, or to treating transgender patients.

RELATED: Trump administration gives health workers who oppose abortion new protections

Proponents say it protects workers’ rights to religious freedom. But opponents don't see it that way, questioning the administration's motives.

“We are not fooled," Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in an announcement. "The new office announced this morning is meant to make it easier for people to discriminate, not to protect people of faith.” 

“This administration isn’t increasing freedom—they’re paving the way for discrimination,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an announcement. The day before the HHS announcement, the ACLU promised legal action to fight the action by the Trump administration.

Saying the new division is a way to sanction discrimination in healthcare, Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, called it “misguided” and “mean-spirited.”

Opponents used the hash tag #RXforDiscrimination to describe the action.

Catholics for Choice, a group that supports a woman’s right to choose, also criticized the action.

“This decision—not so coincidentally timed around the March for Life—is a cheap attempt by President Trump to pander to ultraconservative special interests that got him into power," said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, the group’s vice president, in a statement. "Time and time again, we have seen this administration radically redefine religious freedom to impose one set of ultraconservative beliefs on all Americans.”

Nurse and physician groups reiterate ethical, professional standards

The American Medical Association, the largest organization that represents U.S. doctors, declined to comment, saying it had not seen the written proposal from HHS. 

But the group noted in an email that its Code of Medical Ethics says the “freedom to act according to conscience is not unlimited. Physicians must respect basic civil liberties and not discriminate against individuals.”

Respecting the diversity of patients is a fundamental value of the medical profession and reflected in long-standing AMA ethical policy opposing any refusal to care for patients based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other criteria that would constitute discrimination.

RELATED: Trump would protect healthcare providers with moral objections to abortion, treating transgender patients

The American Nurses Association said its code of ethics says a nurse has a duty to care but is also justified in refusing to participate in a particular decision or action that is morally objectionable, as long as it is conscience-based and not based on personal preference, prejudice, bias, convenience or arbitrariness.

Physicians for Reproductive Health posted a tweet quoting one of its physicians.

"We as medical providers have sworn an oath to serve the public, and we shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who’s going to get care or who we are going to serve based on religious beliefs,” said Jennifer Conti, M.D., an obstetrician/gynecologist.

Criticism from other quarters was wide-ranging. Doug Wirth, president and CEO of Amida Care, New York’s largest not-for-profit Medicaid Special Needs Health Plan, spoke out against the action, which he said will allow healthcare workers to discriminate under the cover of religious or moral objections. 

“It is hard enough for too many Americans to get their health needs met. Allowing healthcare workers who are biased, racist, homophobic, transphobic or against women's reproductive rights to withhold health services will hurt our neighbors. It could even kill them," Wirth said in an announcement.

New HHS site streamlines the conscience or religious freedom complaint process 

HHS added a new section on conscience and religious freedom to its website with instructions on how individuals or organizations can can file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) "against a healthcare or social services provider." 

“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,” OCR director Roger Severino said in an announcement about the new division.

At the bottom of the page, the new site also includes a link to OCR, where patients can file a discrimination claim. Text there notes that "HHS ensures that people have equal access and opportunities to participate in certain healthcare and human services programs without unlawful discrimination."