The Trump White House announced a new rule Thursday that overhauls the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR) by refocusing its mission protecting the “religious freedom” of health care providers. The new “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” (CRFD) will focus entirely on ensuring providers are allowed to opt out of providing care when they have objections, which has huge implications for patients’ access to abortion, LGBTQ people, and people living with HIV.
According to drafts released Thursday morning, the CRFD will be “responsible for OCR’s national conscience and religious freedom program, including enforcement of and compliance with laws protecting conscience and the free exercise of religion and prohibiting coercion and religious discrimination.”
The shift will represent the biggest backlash in the pingponging policies over the past few presidential administrations. President Bush had some conscience protections for health care workers, but the Obama administration reversed them, noting that they were being used to justify various forms of discrimination. As Politico notes, this included refusing to provide birth control, refusing treatment for HIV and AIDS, denying fertility treatment to lesbian couples, or not providing ambulance transportation for someone planning to seek an abortion.
Many fear the new rule is also designed to specifically target the transgender community, particularly given its author. Last year, Trump appointed the Heritage Foundation’s Roger Severino, a massive opponent of LGBTQ equality, to serve as the head of HHS’s civil rights department. Just a year prior, Severino had co-written a report objecting to the Obama administration’s rules protecting transgender patients from health care discrimination, expressing his concern that medical professionals and organizations would be punished for rejecting the legitimacy of transgender identities.
As the Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality told Politico, “Any rule that grants a license to discriminate would be a disgrace and a mockery of the principal of religious freedom we all cherish.”
The timing of the rule is not a coincidence. On Friday, Trump — who once said he believes there should be some sort of punishment for people who get abortions — will become the first sitting president to address the March for Life, one of the largest anti-choice rallies in the country. Mike Pence became the first sitting vice president to address the march last year.
It’s the latest in a string of particularly anti-choice moves by the Trump administration. In October, an HHS draft strategic plan was released that included language describing life as “beginning at conception” just days after a new rule was announced making it easier for employers to refuse to cover birth control for their employees.
The rule also comes just a day after Trump sent a letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBTQ Republican group, congratulating it on its 40th anniversary. Trump claimed to reaffirm his commitment to protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation — notably not gender identity — “to ensure that all Americans live in a country where they feel safe and where their opportunities are limitless.” Though the Log Cabin Republicans have consistently defended the Trump administration, there is little defensible about it when it comes to LGBTQ issues.
The Trump administration has tried (unsuccessfully) to ban transgender people from serving in the military, abandoned transgender students and transgender workers experiencing discrimination, argued in court it should be legal to fire people for being gay, issued “religious freedom guidance” licensing anti-LGBTQ discrimination, nominated a litany of anti-LGBTQ individuals to appointed positions, and slashing funding for HIV research and services. And now, queer people might have no recourse when they are denied the basic health care they deserve.
UPDATE: HHS’s announcement Thursday morning featured several speakers who spoke out about concerns related to abortion, but who also have long histories of opposing LGBTQ equality, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who helped kill an LGBTQ rights bill in 2016, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who believes it should be legal to fire people for being gay, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), who led the fight to keep transgender people out of the military, Montse Alvarado, head of the anti-LGBTQ Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Everett Piper, who proudly declared that Oklahoma Wesleyan University sought a religious exemption so it could discriminate against transgender people.