A new media report that the Trump administration is set to propose a rule that would allow medical providers to refuse abortion-related services or treatment for transgender people has invoked concern among both LGBT and women’s groups.
On Wednesday, Politico reported the Department of Health & Human Services is preparing a rule enabling its civil rights office to shield workers who refuse to provide abortion-related care and services to transgender people on religious grounds. The rule would reportedly allow HHS to punish organizations that don’t allow practitioners to express these objections.
Politico reports the proposed rule would create a new division of the HHS civil rights office that “would conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers to opt out of procedures when they have religious or moral objections.”
Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the proposed rule “would be another harmful attack on LGBTQ people by Donald Trump and Mike Pence.”
“Health care workers have a professional and ethical obligation to provide health care to all who need it,” Warbelow added. “Every American deserves access to medically necessary health care, and that health care should not be determined by the personal opinions of individual health care providers or administrative staff.”
The proposed rule is under review at the White House and the timing of the publication may coincide with the anti-abortion March for Life in D.C. over the weekend, according to Politico.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during the Wednesday news briefing President Trump would be the first sitting U.S. president ever to address the annual event. If the proposed rule is published by then, Trump may reference that in his remarks.
Sources familiar with HHS say the internal schedule at HHS is planning an event Thursday to announce a new Conscience & Religious Freedom Division. The event is scheduled to take place in the Humphrey Building First Floor Auditorium at HHS between 10:30-11:30am.
Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement the proposal would be “incredibly dangerous, and prevent women and transgender people from getting the care they need.”
“We should be able to trust that health care providers will provide the best care possible, not worry that they may instead impose their private, religious beliefs on their patients,” Singiser said. “For the past year, the Trump-Pence administration has been working to infringe on our freedoms and taking away the rights of people of color, LGBTQ people and women.”
Masen Davis, CEO of the LGBT group Freedom for All Americans, said in a statement the reported rule “would put transgender people and women at risk of being denied life-saving medical care.”
“When medical clinics and hospitals open their doors to serve the public, they must take in everyone on equal terms,” Davis said. “Religiously-affiliated providers are already protected from performing procedures that violate their religious beliefs, but this proposed rule goes far beyond our Constitution’s promise of religious freedom — it’s discrimination, plain and simple.”
The White House deferred comment to HHS, which didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for information on the proposal.
In contrast to the Trump administration proposal, the Obama administration issued a rule interpreting the provision barring sex discrimination under Obamacare to bar medical providers from discriminating against transgender patients or women who have had abortions. After a legal challenge, however, HHS was enjoined from enforcing that rule as a result of a court order issued by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas.
Administrative action against the Obama-era rule has been anticipated for some time. Court documents in the legal challenge against it indicated the Trump administration was either poised to rescind the rule or reconfigure it to allow religious objectors to deny services.
The proposed rule may be challenged in court by LGBT legal groups, although representatives from those organizations whom the Washington Blade contacted said they need to see the rule first before committing to action.
Mia Jacobs, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union, said litigation against the proposal is possible after it becomes public.
“We haven’t seen the rule yet, and will make that final determination once we see it, but if it gives license to impermissible discrimination, we will sue,” Jacobs said.
Jennifer Pizer, law and policy director for Lambda Legal, said, “it’s hard to know what grounds there likely will be to fight back legally” without publication of the rule.
“It looks like yet more policy change long sought by the religious extremists for whom [Vice President Mike] Pence is a flag bearer, and one more example of this administration’s crusade to jam through as much of their agenda as possible before voters have a chance to toss them out,” Pizer said.
Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said his organization is making preparations, but “it’s hard to be more specific until we see what exactly they are doing.”
The report of the proposed rule comes after the appointment last year of Roger Severino as head of the HHS civil rights division. At the time of his appointment, transgender groups expressed discontent over the move on the basis of anti-trans views he expressed as a scholar for the anti-LGBT Heritage Foundation.
Severino would have jurisdiction over the proposal and is among the scheduled speakers for the HHS event on Thursday.
Marguerite Bowling, a spokesperson for the Heritage Foundation, said the final rule remains unseen, but in general rules to allow religious accommodations are a good idea.
“Conscience violations continue to occur and it is critical that the administration responds appropriately,” Bowling said. “The freedom to live in accordance with one’s conscience is a fundamental principle of American life. Ensuring that HHS funds do not support morally coercive or discriminatory practices or policies in violation of federal law should not be remotely controversial.”
In a joint statement from the Democratic National Committee, Elizabeth Renda, the DNC’s director of women’s media, and Lucas Acosta, the DNC’s director of LGBTQ media, condemned the Trump administration’s proposed plan.
“It wasn’t enough to try to strip transgender Americans of their right to serve, roll back access to birth control and attempt to defund Planned Parenthood,” Renda and Lucas said. “Now Trump, Pence and their Republican cronies want to allow health care workers to discriminate and rip away access to medical care. This rule is unethical and dangerously undermines public health.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.