U.S. health agency finalizes conscience and religious freedom rule

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday released a final rule allowing doctors, nurses and other health workers to opt out of procedures such as abortions and sterilizations which violate their personal or religious beliefs.

An emergency room nurse walks the hall of a medical center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The rule, proposed more than a year ago, reinforces a set of 25 laws passed by Congress that protect “conscience rights” in healthcare, HHS said. Those laws allow health providers and entities to opt out of providing, participating in, paying for or referring for healthcare services that they have personal or religious objections to, HHS said.

The rule will be effective 60 days from its final publication and enforced by the agency’s Office of Civil Rights.

“Finally, laws prohibiting government funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law,” Roger Severino, director of HHS’s Office of Civil Rights, said in a statement.

“This rule ensures that healthcare entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the healthcare field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life,” he said.

Physicians, medical groups and others have warned the rule would erode protections for vulnerable patients in healthcare, including gay and transgender individuals.

“This administration shows itself to be determined to use religious liberty to harm communities it deems less worthy of equal treatment under the law,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

“This rule threatens to prevent people from accessing critical medical care and may endanger people’s lives,” Melling said.

In April 2018, the American Medical Association wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar warning that the rule would further marginalize vulnerable patient populations. The group also said conscience rights for physicians were not unlimited.

President Donald Trump’s administration has prioritized expanding religious liberty protections through measures that included an executive order in May 2017. HHS created a new Office of Conscience and Religious Freedom within its Office of Civil Rights more than a year ago, and soon after proposed its conscience rule.

Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Richard Chang