New “Religious Freedom” HHS Division Puts Women’s & LGBTQ Health at Risk

The Trump administration announced the creation of a new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) division devoted to "conscience and religious freedom" (CRFD for short).

The Trump administration announced the creation of a new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) division devoted to “conscience and religious freedom” (CRFD for short). Building on a steady pattern over the past year in placing the concept of religious liberty over other aspects of rule of law, the new division will be “responsible for OCR’s national conscience and religious freedom program, including enforcement of and compliance with laws protecting conscience and the free exercise of religion and prohibiting coercion and religious discrimination.”

OCR is the HHS Office of Civil Rights – something the Trump administration decided to retool in order to place religious belief above existing anti-discrimination protections.

What This Means

Before today, the HHS OCR protected the rights of marginalized groups seeking to legal and safe access health care services across the United States.

Historically, the office assisted those who experienced discrimination gaining access to abortion (including ambulatory services), people living with HIV who experienced discrimination in obtaining basic health care, assistance for women seeking birth control, lesbians seeking access to fertility treatment, and more.

Another group of people the OCR sought to protect – a group the Trump administration has repeatedly targeted over the last year – is the transgender community. Though doctor’s offices and hospitals have a legal obligation to help those with medical emergencies, transgender people – especially transgender women of color – experience discrimination in health care settings at an alarming rate.

And that’s even touching on the ridiculously high suicide rate among transgender people who have been denied access to care.

Those populations must now fight that ongoing discrimination without the help of the OCR as its mission has shifted to protecting those with religious objections to providing care.

In a statement responding to the creation of the new division, The National Center for Transgender Equality said in part, “This is the use of religion to hurt people because you disapprove of who they are,” adding, “Any rule that grants a license to discriminate would be a disgrace and a mockery of the principle of religious freedom we all cherish.”

Other individuals and organizations reacted similarly.

Reaction

Commenting on the change in policy in placing religious objections over the safety and well being of at-risk populations, ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling offered strong remarks. “There’s every reason to think that this administration is going to place religious objections over the health and lives of rights of individuals,” Melling said.

Kelli Garcia, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, echoed Melling’s remarks saying “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.” She added, “The issue is this emboldens people who want to be able to deny this care.”

Diane Horvath-Copser, an obstetrician/gynecologist and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, also criticized the Trump administration’s decision to place belief over people’s health. “In the past, the duty to the patient has been the priority, and that’s what major medical groups say. This flips the script and makes it about the provider and that’s not really how we should be providing medical care,” she said.”

Specifically addressing the LGBTQ aspect of the change in policy, the National LGBTQ Task Force offered harsh words. “We are not fooled: The new office announced this morning is meant to make it easier for people to discriminate, not to protect people of faith.” They added, “Health professionals have a duty to care for all their patients regardless of one’s gender identity, sexual orientation, faith, creed, race, political views, gender, or disability, and no one should be denied care for being who they are.”

While the American Medical Association gives physicians leeway in acting on their morality and beliefs, even they forbid much of what the Trump administration is codifying into law. Their ethics code explicitly states that no patient can be refused care based on “race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other criteria that would constitute invidious discrimination.”

Apparently, the Trump administration didn’t get that memo.

Targeted Discrimination 

In their report on the retooled HHS civil rights division, Politico noted this week:

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.

That’s alarmed advocates for LGBT patients, who say they’re already fighting to overcome stigmas and discrimination and who warn that the policy shift will only worsen their situation.

They added:

Severino, the HHS civil rights chief, has a long record of advocating for religious groups and arguing against LGBT protections, such as serving as counsel in court battles opposing same-sex marriage. Severino also has been a strong critic of providing procedures to transgender patients seeking to transition.

“On the basis of religious teachings, moral reasoning, scientific evidence, and medical experience, many have strong grounds to hold that one’s sex is an immutable characteristic,” Severino and a co-author wrote in a Heritage Foundation report in January 2016. “Many involved in providing medical care and those enrolled in health insurance plans have serious objections to participating in or paying for sex-reassignment surgeries or gender transitions.”

If Severino’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s been working for years to block new and tear down existing LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections – and now he has a chance to put those motives into action.

Detailing his history of anti-LGBTQ activism, ThinkProgress reported last year:

In 2016, for example, Severino co-authored a Heritage report criticizing proposed Obama administration rules preventing discrimination against transgender patients within the health care system. Protecting trans people against such discrimination, Severino warned, would “penalize medical professionals and health care organizations that, as a matter of faith, moral conviction, or professional medical judgment, believe that maleness and femaleness are biological realities to be respected and affirmed, not altered or treated as diseases.”

Similarly, in 2007, Severino published a law review article entitled “Or for Poorer? How Same-Sex Marriage Threatens Religious Liberty,” where he claimed that marriage equality would lead to “both government compulsion of religious institutions to provide financial or other support for same‐sex married couples and government withdrawal of public benefits from those institutions that oppose same‐sex marriage.”

Severino’s history aside, it’s also no coincidence that the Trump administration chose today to announce the creation of CRFD. Tomorrow Trump will make history as the first sitting president to attend and speak at the March for Life – an event billed as one of the largest anti-abortion rallies in the country.

Just as the new division seeks to target LGBTQ people’s access to safe and adequate health care, so too does Trump’s administration want to launch yet another direct attack on women’s constitutional right to choose.

That should come as no surprise though given Trump’s previous statement that women should be punished for having abortions.

The Division’s Roll-Out

During their announcement of the division’s creation today, the Trump administration trotted out several prominent anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion figures. ThinkProgress‘ Zack Ford live-tweeted the event with commentary:

Which is to say, the Trump administration isn’t naïve about what they’re doing. They know the exact purpose of this new division and aren’t bothering to hide it.

Pattern

As with most marginalizing actions and statements delivered by this administration, the creation of CRFD is just the latest in a year-long pattern of discriminatory actions and statements aimed at marginalizing at-risk portions of the U.S. population.

We originally detailed this pattern in October 2017 when reporting on the Department of Justice ‘religious liberty’ memo, but it bear repeating (again):

The ‘religious liberty’ memo is just another brick in the tower of anti-LGBTQ bias the administration has consistently demonstrated since even before the election last November.

Some of the administrations other action against the LGBTQ community include:

And then there’s the under-the radar actions the Trump administration has taken to halt or reverse LGBTQ rights.

Since then, we’ve been able to add to that pattern these additional stories:

Omitted from this list are a handful of other actions the Trump administration has taken we didn’t write about such as their eradication of funding for HIV services and research.

Suffice to say, the Trump administration just realized the fears every LGBTQ person and women’s reproductive health advocate voiced during the 2016 elections.

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Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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