Doctor holding stethoscope

President Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights on Thursday announced a final rule that “protects individuals and health care entities from discrimination on the basis of their exercise of conscience.”

Advocates say it’s a welcome change from the previous administration of Barack Obama.

“There are many statutes that would protect the conscience rights of health care workers, such as the Weldon amendment. Unfortunately, the previous administration refused to enforce them and looked the other way when violated,” said Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life.

“We thank President Trump and his administration for enforcing these laws and protecting health care workers who object to participating in the taking of innocent human life,” she said. “We applaud the president for following through on another promise.’

The new rule was announced Thursday on the National Day of Prayer.

The OCR, which enforces other civil rights, now has a rule that implements “full and robust enforcement of approximately 25 provisions passed by Congress protecting longstanding conscience rights in healthcare,” HHS said.

The agency’s announcement said: “The final rule fulfills President Trump’s promise to promote and protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious liberty, a promise he made when he signed an executive order in May 2017 protecting religious liberty. In October 2017, the Department of Justice issued guidance encouraging other Departments, including HHS, to implement and enforce all relevant religious freedom laws.

“As a result, in January 2018, following the launch of its new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, HHS announced the proposed conscience rule. OCR received over 242,000 public comments, and analyzed and carefully considered all comments submitted from the public on the proposed conscience regulation before finalizing it.”

It replaces a 2011 rule that “has proven inadequate,” the announcement said.

“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 directives,” HHS said.

The final rule spells out what covered entities need to do to comply with applicable conscience provisions. And it requires applicants for HHS federal financial assistance to provide assurances and certifications of compliance.

“Finally, laws prohibiting government funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law,” said OCR Director Roger Severino.

“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. Protecting conscience and religious freedom not only fosters greater diversity in healthcare, it’s the law.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said, “On this National Day of Prayer, many healthcare providers have an answer to their prayers, and healthcare professions no longer will be forced to choose between their beliefs.

Perkins said President Trump’s efforts “reflect a long history in American constitutional law about the morality of conscience rights.”

“Unfortunately, the previous administration had little concern for protecting the conscience rights of doctors, nurses and residents,” he said.

“Despite current law that has protected conscience rights for over 30 years, the lack of regulations resulted in confusion and a lack of awareness within the healthcare community, leaving healthcare personnel vulnerable to discrimination and forcing them to drop their specialties at a time of healthcare scarcity. Protecting the right of all healthcare providers to make professional judgments based on moral convictions and ethical standards is foundational to federal law and is necessary to ensure that access to healthcare is not diminished, which would occur if they were forced out of their jobs because of their ethical stances.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said that last year the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the Office of Civil Rights “was established at HHS to investigate and address conscience violations – an essential step to protect pro-life doctors and nurses like Cathy DeCarlo, who was forced to assist in a late-term abortion or lose her job.”

“These new regulations go even further to put teeth back in the law after years of nonenforcement by the Obama administration,” she said. “Abortion is not health care and no health care professional should ever be forced to participate in the destruction of human life.”

Dannenfelser said that as some states “attempt to expand abortion on demand through birth, with no conscience protections whatsoever, these regulations underscore the Trump administration’s seriousness about standing up for pro-life health care workers and institutions.”

“We thank President Trump and Secretary Azar for their commitment to fighting discrimination,” she said. “We also continue to urge Congress to enact a private right of action so victims can seek relief in court in the future, no matter who holds power in Washington.”

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