Could Your Doctor’s Religious Beliefs Come Between You and Your Health Care?

The Trump administration says its new ruling is a way to protect religious freedoms. But many say it goes too far.

Medically Reviewed

The Trump administration finalized a ruling Thursday that increases health care workers’ ability to refuse to provide services like abortion, assisted suicide, gender-affirming surgery, and sterilization if it goes against their religious beliefs.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which issued this “conscience rule,” said it’s designed to help protect health-care providers’ religious rights.

"This rule ensures that health-care entities and professionals won't be bullied out of the health- care field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life," said HHS's Office for Civil Rights director Roger Severino in a written statement. “Finally, laws prohibiting government-funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law.”

HHS first announced plans for the conscience rule in January 2018 , fulfilling promises Trump made when he signed a religious-freedom executive order in May 2017. The new rule replaces a 2011 rule that the HHS says had “proven inadequate.” The new ruling goes into effect July 1.

The rule protects “providers, individuals, and other health-care entities from having to provide, participate in, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for, services such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide,” the HHS statement reads. Essentially, if workers complain to the Office for Civil Rights and the office finds the employer has violated the ruling (for example, by requiring workers to perform services that go against their beliefs), they could lose government funding.

Abortion and LGBT rights groups were quick to criticize the ruling. They say the protections are dangerously broad and may result in patients being denied care that could save their lives—especially when it comes to reproductive health.

"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, in a statement.

If you are being refused care, know you have the right to seek a second opinion. For example, if your doctor is denying you reproductive-health care services, look to see if there is a Planned Parenthood in your area. They offer free or low-cost services to people of all genders, including abortion and sterilization. You can search for a clinic near you and even book an appointment on their website. The National Network of Abortion Funds also offers helpful information to help you find a low-cost clinic that fits your needs.

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