This morning the Department of Health and Human Services announced a significant change in its civil rights office, and it’s bad news for transgender patients and anyone seeking an abortion. Within the HHS civil rights office, there is now a “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division,” which will serve to shield health care providers who want to refuse to provide abortions and/or give treatment to transgender patients on “religious” grounds.
The HHS is, unsurprisingly, trying to frame this change as a win for religious freedom — as opposed to what many others would argue as a slash in the health and human rights of women and trans people.
The HHS stated in its announcement of the new Division that it “has been established to restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom. OCR is the law enforcement agency within HHS that enforces federal laws protecting civil rights and conscience in health and human services, and the security and privacy of people’s health information.” The reality is that women and trans people will have a harder time getting access to essential medical care.
Politico reports that the new HHS rule will further empower the government to “punish” organizations that don’t allow medical professionals to refuse treatment based on religious or moral objections. Not only will the changes mean that doctors can refuse to treat people for vague religious or “moral” reasons, but if a doctor’s employer pushes back, they could get slapped with legal action from the federal government.
The Trump administration’s vigorous commitment to so-called religious freedom over and above the health of trans people and patients seeking an abortion is cause for major concern among reproductive choice and trans health advocates.
In a statement provided to Brit + Co, Dr. Willie Parker, a reproductive rights advocate and chair of the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health, said, “As medical professionals, our utmost concern is that people can get timely, high-quality health care that they need without stigma or obstacles. Patient care should always come first,” adding that he is “troubled” by the new HHS rule. Parker also said that he is a “person of faith” and does not see religious values at odds with a doctor’s responsibility to give all patients the care they need.
The Transgender Law Center released its own statement Thursday morning, calling the new HHS rule “extreme.” The TLC also says the rule “grants an illegal license to discriminate against transgender people who come to the doctor or emergency room for help when our lives are in danger due to sickness, violence, or injury. It’s also an attack against all people, including many in the transgender community, who rely on critical care ranging from reproductive services to emergency services to HIV medication.” The statement ended with a promise to take the government to court over the new rule.
Of course, this is not the first time the Trump administration has attacked trans people’s health. When the Department of Defense first announced he planned to rollback an Obama-era law that allows trans people to serve in the military, it cited the supposedly too-high cost of trans health care. But according to NBC News, this reasoning is based on essentially nothing, since trans health care costs the DOD very little in comparison with the Department’s total budget, and the health cost of cisgender people in the military.
Reproductive and trans health care also came under attack in December when word broke that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were reportedly banning the use of seven words, including “fetus” and “transgender,” from official documents. Representatives of the CDC went on to refute the claim, but an NPR report would go on to observe that fewer National Science Foundation grants had been awarded to proposals that included politically charged language.
Trump has now established a thorough pattern of attack against reproductive and trans rights. And though the Trump administration claims it wants to better protect religious liberties, the reality is that the new HHS rule will make it easier for doctors to discriminate against women and all trans patients.
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(Photos via Getty; Featured illustration by Sarah Tate/ Brit + Co)