A federal judge in New York on Wednesday struck down a new Trump administration rule that would allow health care clinicians to refuse to provide medical services, such as abortions, to patients for moral or religious reasons.

United States District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer of the Southern District of New York rejected the rule on multiple grounds, including a finding that it violated the Constitution’s spending clause by allowing the Trump administration to cut off funds approved by Congress to providers who do not comply with the rule by requiring employees to provide services to which the personally object.

Engelmayer ruled that the “conscience” rule was too coercive, allowing the Department of Health and Human Services to withhold billions in federal funding unless health care providers complied. “Wherever the outermost line where persuasion gives way to coercion lies, the threat to pull all HHS funding here crosses it,” Engelmayer wrote in a 147-page decision, adding that the rule was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The ruling came after a number of states, including New York, women’s groups, and health organizations sued the Department of Health and Human Services, arguing that the rule was unconstitutional and would allow for discrimination in the name of religious freedom.

“Today’s decision is an important victory against the Trump Administration’s cruel and unlawful attempts to roll back critical patient protections,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs, but religious beliefs do not include a license to discriminate, to deny essential care, or to cause harm to others.”

The Trump administration had touted the rule as important protection for people’s religious beliefs, specifically citing abortion. “This 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,” Department of Health and Human Services official Roger Severino said when the rule was proposed in May.

The ruling came in three consolidated lawsuits. One consisted of 19 states, the District of Columbia and three local governments. “The refusal of care rule was an unlawful attempt to allow health care providers to openly discriminate and refuse to provide necessary health care to patients based on providers’ ‘religious beliefs or moral objections,’” New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led the lawsuit for the states, said. “We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to protect access to health care and protect the rights of all individuals.”

Opponents argued that the rule, which would have taken effect November 22nd, posed a threat not just to those seeking abortions but also to LGBTQ patients because health care providers could argue treating them was against their religious or moral views.

The Trump administration has taken a range of actions that have been celebrated by abortion opponents and denounced by abortion rights defenders, including limiting federal funding under the Title X family planning program for providers who perform abortions.

Sources: NBC 11/6/19; The Hill 11/6/19

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