WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agreed in a July 1 court filing to postpone implementation of a new conscience protection rule “because it is the most efficient way to adjudicate the final rule on the merits.”
Under the rule, which was to have taken effect July 22, medical workers or institutions would not have to provide, participate in or pay for procedures they object to on moral or religious grounds, such as abortion and sterilization.
President Donald Trump announced the rule May 2 at the White House Rose Garden during a speech on the National Day of Prayer.
“Just today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students and faith-based charities,” Trump said.
The same day Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, chairman of the bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, issued a joint statement commending the new rule aimed at ensuring existing laws protecting conscience rights in health care are enforced and followed.
Almost immediately numerous lawsuits, including by a number of states, were filed against it, arguing that the rule severely limits patient care access and could deny medical care to women and LGBTQ patients, among others.
The city of San Francisco was the first jurisdiction to take the Trump administration to court over the conscience protection rule, filing suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. City Attorney Dennis Herrera is seeking a preliminary injunction to keep the rule from taking effect; in the meantime HHS agreed to delay its implementation.
However, the agency’s filing said, “HHS does not concede that plaintiffs are ‘likely to succeed on the merits, that (they are) likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in (their) favor, (or) that an injunction is in the public interest.'”
The rule, issued by HHS and enforced by that department’s Office of Civil Rights, is more than 400 pages long with specific guidelines requiring hospitals, clinics and universities that receive federal funding through Medicare or Medicaid to certify that they comply with laws protecting conscience rights regarding abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide.
“Laws prohibiting government funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law,” Roger Severino, director of the Office of Civil Rights, said in a statement when Trump announced the rule.
Severino added that it would ensure “health care 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 health care, it’s the law,” he said.
Last year, HHS received more than 1,300 complaints alleging discrimination in a health care setting based on religious beliefs or conscience issues.