HHS announces rule that 'protects' groups and individuals from performing abortions

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House, Thursday May 2, 2019, in Washington.PlayEvan Vucci/AP
WATCH News headlines today: May 2, 2019

The Trump administration on Thursday announced a new rule that it says will "protect" health care entities and individuals who object to abortion on religious grounds.

President Donald Trump announced the rule in the Rose Garden during a speech on the National Day of Prayer, touting his administration's work defending religious liberties.

"Just today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students and faith-based charities," Trump said.

It's the latest development in the ongoing abortion debate that has regained steam in the Trump era, as critics argue that the future of legal abortion is in jeopardy with Trump's administration stacked with anti-abortion officials and the Supreme Court's conservative lean.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House, Thursday May 2, 2019, in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House, Thursday May 2, 2019, in Washington.

Presented by the Department of Health and Human Services as a civil rights issue, the final conscience rule "protects individuals and health care entities from discrimination on the basis of their exercise of conscience in HHS-funded programs," according to an HHS news release.

However, critics of the rule argue it will limit health care access to women and LGBTQ patients. The president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center called it a "vicious and underhanded attack," and said, “The Trump-Pence Administration will stop at nothing to strip patients of the care they deserve."

"This rule allows anyone from a doctor to a receptionist to entities like hospitals and pharmacies to deny a patient critical – and sometimes lifesaving – care," Fatima Goss Graves said. "Personal beliefs should never determine the care a patient receives. This is a vicious and underhanded attack on the health and lives of patients, particularly targeting women and LGBTQ individuals. We will fight against it until all patients get the care they deserve.”

Jamie Gliksberg, a senior attorney with Lambda Legal, in a phone interview, said the rule invites discrimination against already marginalized communities and argued that it will worsen disparities in the health care system – specifically noting that it could deter LGBTQ patients from seeking routine medical care.

Meanwhile, others praised the administration's final conscience rule, like Melanie Israel -- a research associate with the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.

"The freedom to act, work and live in accordance with one’s conscience is a fundamental American principle. No person or entity should face discrimination or coercion for declining to participate in procedures, such as abortion or physician-assisted suicide, that violate sincere moral, ethical, or religious beliefs," Israel said in a statement.

She continued: "The Trump administration’s final rule is a much-needed action to protect individual liberties and robustly enforce federal conscience statutes. For more than 40 years, federal law has protected conscience rights of Americans in the context of health care. While the Obama administration provided inadequate enforcement and oversight of federal conscience statutes, this final rule ensures that HHS will safeguard the rights of individuals and entities that dissent on morally sensitive or controversial procedures."

The rule's objective, according to the news release, "clarifies what covered entities need to do to comply with applicable conscience provisions and requires applicants for HHS federal financial assistance to provide assurances and certifications of compliance."

"These federal laws protect providers, individuals, and other health care entities from having to provide, participate in, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for, services such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide. It also includes conscience protections with respect to advance directive," the news release said.

HHS Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said in a statement that the rule "ensures that healthcare entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the health care field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life."

"Protecting conscience and religious freedom not only fosters greater diversity in healthcare, it’s the law," his statement added.