It seems too cruel, even by the standards of the Trump administration: This week, officials said they would allow medical professionals and institutions who claim religious objections to deny coverage to transgender people and other individuals.
To be clear, the administration isn’t talking about protecting doctors who don’t want to provide gender reassignment services or abortions, controversial procedures some individuals oppose on sincere religious grounds.
Instead, the sweeping move, announced by the Department of Health and Human Services, appears to open the way for a doctor or nurse to turn away a transgender individual with a broken arm — for no other reason than by their gender identity.
Under the administration’s new regulations, a new federal agency will be responsible for fielding and investigating complaints from doctors, nurses, and other health care providers who feel they have been coerced into serving transgender individuals or women seeking abortions or sterilizations. It will also be empowered to punish organizations that don’t allow providers to express their religious freedoms and moral objections.
The new policy seems like a solution in search of a problem. For one, existing federal conscience-protection laws already shield health care providers who object to performing procedures that violate their moral or religious convictions — and those are reasonable accommodations that seem to work just fine.
The new rules are so broad that they will potentially make it easier for medical professionals to discriminate against female or LGBT patients on the basis of who they are, not on the basis of the procedures involved. The consequences could be disastrous: Expect inequity gaps and medical disparities to worsen among already vulnerable populations.
Political fights over conscience protections are not new, but this is an egregious attack on basic antidiscrimination laws — sadly, one that is entirely consistent with an administration that has already been rescinding protections for transgender individuals in workplaces, schools, and the military. With these new rules, could a medical practitioner refuse to treat an unmarried mother? By citing religious beliefs, could an emergency room turn away a gay man who had a stroke?
In an NPR interview, Roger Severino, the director of the civil rights division at HHS, affirmed that his office will respond equally to patients who complain of discrimination as a result of the new guidance. “There is no contradiction between respecting conscience and protecting against discrimination against people of faith and conscience and respecting all of the other civil rights,” Severino said.
But there are reasons to be skeptical. The balance between those two concepts seems to have already tilted toward an overly expansive view of religious freedoms, at the expense of antidiscrimination protection.
The new federal entity doubles down on the notion that religious freedom can be an escape hatch from laws meant to protect all Americans. It empowers providers to reject patients on the basis of their identities. It’s a stunning step backwards.