Trump administration agrees to delay 'conscience' rule

Medical justice
Lawsuits allege a new federal rule would reduce access to healthcare, particularly for women, LGBTQ individuals and other vulnerable populations. (Getty/yavdat)

The Trump administration has agreed to postpone implementing a rule allowing healthcare workers to refuse to perform certain procedures such as abortion for religious or moral reasons while the so-called “conscience” rule is challenged in a California court.

The rule was supposed to take effect on July 22. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its opponents in a California lawsuit mutually agreed Friday to delay until Nov. 22, according to the Associated Press.

The agency called it the “most efficient way to adjudicate” the rule. A federal judge in San Francisco permitted the change on Saturday, the AP reports.

The final rule, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR), initially was to take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. The rule is intended to protect individuals and healthcare entities from discrimination on the basis of their exercise of conscience in HHS-funded programs.

RELATED: Legal challenges filed to Trump's 'conscience' rule that allows healthcare workers to refuse care for religious reasons

A California lawsuit, filed by the city of San Francisco in May, argues the rule is unconstitutional and would increase discrimination in health care while threatening nearly $1 billion in the city's healthcare funding.

If allowed to take effect, the rule would reduce access to health care, particularly for women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people; and other medically and socially vulnerable populations, officials from City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office said in a statement.

In the lawsuit, Herrera argued that HHS exceeded its statutory authority by creating the so-called “conscience” rule and violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the spending clause, separation of powers principles, and other provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

"Faced with the law, the Trump administration blinked,” Herrera said in a statement issued Friday. “We have won this battle — and it was an important one — but the fight is not over. The Trump administration is trying to systematically limit access to critical medical care for women, the LGBTQ community, and other vulnerable patients. We’re not going to let that happen. We will continue to stand up for what’s right. Hospitals are no place to put personal beliefs above patient care. Refusing treatment to vulnerable patients should not leave anyone with a clear conscience.”    

RELATED: San Francisco sues Trump administration over new 'conscience' rule

HHS has said the rule change is needed to protect the religious freedom of employees who may object to some healthcare procedures. Roger Severino, director of HHS’ Office of Civil Rights, which will enforce the rule, says it does not create any new laws but provides enforcement tools for 25 laws passed by Congress that are already on the books.

The measure would require institutions that receive money from federal programs to certify that they comply with some 25 federal laws protecting conscience and religious rights, according to the AP. Most laws pertain to medical procedures such as abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide.

RELATED: HHS issues new rule with 'conscience' protections for healthcare workers

Critics of the rule, including many patient and health groups, fear such regulations could hurt access to care for patients and will promote discrimination against women and LGBTQ patients. On the other hand, religious-rights groups have lobbied for the changes. 

A coalition of 23 states and municipalities also filed a lawsuit (PDF) in Manhattan federal court to challenge the final rule and asks a judge to declare the rule unconstitutional and in excess of HHS’ statutory jurisdiction.

A separate lawsuit (PDF) was filed in San Francisco federal court, brought by the state of California. Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who filed the lawsuit, argued that the new rule is unlawful and reckless.