Physicians and other healthcare works can decline to provide certain healthcare services because of religious or moral reasons, according to a new HHS rule.
The so-called “conscience” rule, announced by President Donald Trump May 2, pertains specifically to healthcare services related to abortion, sterilization, assisted suicide, and other issues. The rule is slated to go into effect in early July.
The American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and other physician advocacy groups have for years expressed concerns with Trump administration efforts to provide religious exemptions for healthcare providers.
In a statement to PBS, the American Medical Association said about the rule, “while we support the legitimate conscience rights of individual healthcare professionals, the exercise of these rights must be balanced against the fundamental obligations of the medical profession to protect the well-being of patients.”
“The AAFP is concerned that these actions could restrict access to care for vulnerable patients seeking the aid of their family physician or other healthcare professionals,” the AAFP said in written comments last year objecting to the proposal.
The Trump administration has argued that the rule will not impact patient care. The rule is similar to one that was on the books during the George W. Bush presidency, later rescinded under Barack Obama’s administration. Critics say the new rule, released by HHS’ office of civil rights, is more broad than the Bush-era rule.
Supporters of the rule, including the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, say that the rule provides much needed protections for healthcare workers of faith from performing procedures that violate their convictions.
“People and organizations do not have to shed their religious beliefs simply to help others in healthcare,” said Roger Severino, the director at the HHS office for civil rights, during a media call announcing the rule. Severino’s office was responsible for writing the rule.
“Congress has recognized that modern healthcare practices may give rise to conflicts with the religious beliefs and moral convictions of payers, providers, and patients alike,” the rule reads. “The existence of moral and ethical objections on the part of healthcare clinicians about participating in, assisting with, referring for, or otherwise being complicit in certain procedures is well documented by ethicists.”
Critics have said the rule is overly broad and will harm access to healthcare services, especially for women and LGBTQ patients.
“This rule allows anyone from a doctor to a receptionist to entities like hospitals and pharmacies to deny a patient critical—and sometimes lifesaving—care,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “Personal beliefs should never determine the care a patient receives.”
The first of many expected legal challenges to the conscience rule was filed in San Francisco last week.