On Thursday, the Trump administration announced the creation of a new division at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that seeks to defend healthcare workers who choose to discriminate against patients who have had or who require certain medical procedures, such as abortions, due to moral or religious objections.

According to the new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom section on the HHS website, doctors, nurses, and other health workers are encouraged to submit a complaint if they believe they were discriminated against because they were reprimanded when they refused to participate in “specific medical procedures, including abortion and sterilization, and related training and research activities,” or if they felt “coerced” into participating in these procedures.

The creation of a Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom was announced one day before March for Life, an annual anti-abortion gathering in Washington.

Feminist advocates are concerned that they will allow for further discrimination and restrict access to health care, particularly for women and members of the LGBTQ community. Under these protections, health workers will be able to refuse to provide care for transgender patients, gay or lesbian patients, or women who have had abortions.

The Center for American Progress released a report on Thursday outlining the ways that LGBTQ people already face “disturbing rates” of discrimination in healthcare. For example, a transgender teenager admitted with suicidal ideation was misgendered by hospital staff, discharged early, and later committed suicide. The report also included the story of an infant in Michigan who was denied treatment by a pediatrician’s office because she has same-sex parents. Moreover, the report said that these high rates of discrimination often discourage LGBTQ people from seeking care at all.

Civil rights advocates worry that with the creation of this new division, individual health workers as well as health organizations who seek to discriminate because of religious and moral beliefs now have the legal protection of the Trump administration. Existing discrimination in healthcare for women and the LGBTQ community will likely worsen as a result of this policy.

Democratic lawmakers have also widely condemned the announcement. U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, issued statement saying she is “deeply troubled” by the policy that will restrict health care access for women and transgender individuals. Murray stated that “any approach that would deny or delay health care to someone and jeopardize their wellbeing for ideological reasons is unacceptable.”

This move is a continuation of the Trump administration’s policy to let individuals refuse to provide services that they morally and religiously object to. In October, the Civil Rights Office similarly allowed employers to opt out of providing birth control coverage for employees if it contradicted their religious or moral beliefs.

News sources: NPR 1/18/18, New York Times 1/18/18,  HHS.gov 1/18/18, Washington Post 1/18/18, Center for American Progress 1/18/18, NBC News 1/20/18, Senate.gov 1/18/18, Feminist Majority Foundation 10/6/17

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