Advocates for reproductive healthcare and LGBTQ rights came together on Thursday to condemn the creation of a new division in the Trump administration's Department of Health and Human Services to assist healthcare providers who refuse to treat patients based on religious or moral convictions—a move that legal advocates say "grants an illegal license to discriminate" and "will quite possibly cost lives."
"Religious freedom is not a license to discriminate, and is certainly no excuse to deny anyone healthcare."
—Catholics for Choice
Following reports about an overhaul of the department's Office of Civil Rights that raised alarm among advocates, the administration unveiled its "Conscience and Religious Freedom Division," which, in a statement, vowed to help HHS "more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws" about "religious freedom."
Legal experts warn that "the wording on the rule creating the office appears to open the door for discrimination against patients because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or a whole host of other reasons," as National Women's Law Center senior counsel Kelli Garcia explained in the Washington Post.
"It shocks the conscience that our government would invite healthcare providers to discriminate against their patients, but this is exactly what HHS's new unit is designed to do," asserted Lambda Legal CEO Rachel B. Tiven, whose team published a detailed analysis of the rule.
Lambda Legal's experts said the rule "is designed to facilitate refusals of medically necessary care for individuals who are transgender or in a same-sex relationship, as well as the full range of reproductive health services.... In so doing, the new division will invite health professionals to misunderstand and to ignore governing law and medical standards, and to put patients in jeopardy and themselves at risk of legal liability."
Several rights groups issued warnings about the likely consequences of division's creation:
RT if you believe health care providers and workers MUST #PutPatientsFirst - not their religious or moral beliefs. This “conscience” division office at @HHSOCR is the first step in their #RxforDiscrimination under the guise of religion. pic.twitter.com/ojKgqOZqL5
— NCJW (@NCJW) January 18, 2018
Things that have happened before in the name of religious/moral beliefs:
→ Hospitals refusing to treat or refer someone who needs an abortion
→ Women suffering miscarriages being denied care they need
→ Health care providers refusing care to transgender people
— NWLC (@nwlc) January 18, 2018
— NARAL (@NARAL) January 18, 2018
Ahead of the announcement on Thursday, opponents rallied outside the HHS building in Washington, D.C. and denounced the Trump administration for encouraging healthcare providers "to deny life-saving care in favor of a 'prescription for discrimination.'" They shared updates on social media with the hashtags #RxForDiscrimination and #PutPatientsFirst.
Today we are outside of HHS to say #PutPatientsFirst. Religious freedom is not a license to discriminate, and is certainly no excuse to deny anyone healthcare. #RxforDiscrimination pic.twitter.com/tSHQWS7GLL
— Catholics for Choice (@Catholic4Choice) January 18, 2018
This is not the first time LGBTQ organizations, legal rights groups, and reproductive rights advocates have joined together to fight the Trump administration's "religious freedom" agenda. They also rallied outside the White House in October to oppose efforts to limit women's access to contraception and a Trump Justice Department memo that declared employers could use religious or moral convictions as a defense against discrimination allegations.