What Is The Conscience & Religious Freedom Division? How Trump's New Health Office Could Affect You

The Trump administration announced Thursday the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) new "Conscience & Religious Freedom Division." While the administration claimed it's aimed at protecting health care providers from facing discrimination on the basis of their religion, critics have said that it would enable providers to discriminate against their patients. And if you've ever been to a health clinic in your life, this could affect you, too.

"The creation of the new division will provide HHS with the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom, the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights," read a press release from the HHS on Thursday.

The intended beneficiaries of the division are mainly doctors and nurses who feel pressured to offer care to which they object on religious grounds (for example, abortion services) or who have difficulty finding employment because they refuse to offer that care. In 2014, a nurse-midwife was turned down from a job after she made it known that she would not prescribe birth control.

But many of the policies that prevent health care providers from refusing treatment for religious reasons are meant to protect patients. And critics of this religious freedom division note that it doesn't intend to make providers refer patients to places that will perform the religiously contentious care after they have refused to do so.

Here's how this new move by the Trump administration could affect you.

Birth Control

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The Atlantic reports that the division could encourage health care providers to refuse to birth control services, including prescriptions, abortion, and sterilization. These providers could be traditional health care professionals like doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, but unorthodox cases could also arise. "You could have translators who refuse to translate for a woman undergoing tubal ligation," said Professor Elizabeth Sepper of Washington University's law department.

Around 700 women die each year in the United States for reasons related to pregnancy or childbirth, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "Abortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health," the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists noted in 2012. "Unfortunately, pregnancy is not a risk-free life event."

LGBTQ People

The Washington Post reported that the HHS's Roger Severino "did not rule out" that supporting health care providers who refused treatment to LGBTQ people. An HHS spokesperson told WIRED that the department would be comfortable allowing providers to discriminate against transgender patients.

This threat is all the more critical because such discrimination is already ongoing across the country. A 2017 survey from the Center for American Progress reports that 8 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer patients have been refused treatment by a provider on the basis of sexual orientation.

In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 33 percent of participants who went to the doctor in 2014 said that they'd had "had at least one negative experience related to being transgender," including verbal harassment, sexual assault, and denial of sex-reassignment surgery and other treatment. 23 percent of respondents said they had refrained from seeking necessary medical attention because they were afraid they would be mistreated.

"We know that people will be denied care as a result because discrimination against LGBT people is already widespread and LGBT people have already been turned away from hospitals and doctors’ offices," said Rachel B. Tiven, the CEO of Lambda Legal, on Thursday. "The Orwellian 'Conscience and Religious Freedom' unit simply provides guidance on how they can try to get away with it."

Vaccines

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Some conservative Christian groups resist vaccines that guard against sexually transmitted diseases. For example, the Family Research Council opposes the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine on the grounds that it would encourage youths to engage in sexual activity, thinking it's safe. Some groups are against vaccines that are made using fetal tissues.

Theoretically, the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division could get behind medical professionals who refuse to administer a vaccine to which they object on religious grounds.

Doctor-Assisted Suicide

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Many religious populations, including certain segments of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, consider suicide to be a sin. Currently only six states — Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, and Oregon — allow patients to take lethal medication to end their lives peacefully and avoid more painful or drawn-out deaths.

If the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division allows health care providers in these states to deny patients euthanasia or other means of doctor-assisted suicide, it's refusing them the "death with dignity" they wanted, as phrased by Brittany Maynard, a terminal cancer patient who made headlines in 2014 when she fought for her ability to take lethal drugs.

Of course, much of this is theoretical — although we know that discrimination already exists, it's unclear just how the Conscience & Religious Freedom Division could affect it. But various organizations are standing ready to keep the HHS' new department in check. "Should the administration choose to move forward to implement a discriminatory policy," said ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling in a statement, "we will see them in court."