The Biden administration is proposing to largely undo a Trump-era rule that increased the rights of medical workers to refuse to perform abortions or other services that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs.
In a statement, the Department of Health and Human Services said its proposal would “reinstate the long-standing process for handling conscience complaints and provide additional safeguards to protect against conscience and religious discrimination.”
The move comes as many Republican-led states have enacted abortion bans or strict restrictions following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The proposal, released Thursday, would partially roll back a 2019 Trump administration rule that would have stripped federal funding from health facilities that required workers to provide any services they objected to, such as abortions, contraception, gender-affirming care and sterilization.
“Some doctors, nurses and hospitals, for example, object, on religious or moral grounds, to providing or referring abortions or assisted suicide, among other procedures. Respecting such objections respects human freedom and dignity. This is also for the benefit of the medical profession,” the proposal said.
But at the same time, he noted, “patients also have autonomy, rights and moral and religious convictions. And they have health needs, sometimes[s] urgent ones. Our health care systems must provide services effectively to all who need them in order to protect the health and dignity of patients.”
The 2019 rule was blocked by three federal courts and never went into effect after a number of states, cities and advocacy groups — including New York, California, San Francisco, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood — sued.
The proposal to repeal the so-called “conscience” rule was hailed by progressives as a key part of undoing the Trump administration’s agenda to promote religious conservatism.
“At a time when access to health care is under attack across the country, it is even more imperative that this illegal and harmful rule be repealed. Other people’s beliefs do not give them license to discriminate, deny essential care, or cause harm to others,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, deputy director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement.
Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said the proposal is especially important given the fallout from overturning Roe.
“The administration’s action reaffirming that the patient’s health must come first is essential in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the constitutional right to abortion and the resulting increase in denials of care to patients across the country. It’s more important than ever to protect people who seek health care, including abortion, and make sure their providers are able to give them the care they need,” said Goss Graves.
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