The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a final rule expanding the ability of health care workers to refuse service on the grounds of their religious beliefs in yet another attempt by the Trump Administration to deny the rights of marginalized people using the traditional scapegoat of "religious freedom."
According to HHS, the final rule "encourages the recipients of HHS funds to provide notice to individuals and entities about their right be free [sic] from coercion or discrimination on account of religious beliefs or moral convictions."
This means health care workers can legally refuse to "provide, participate in, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for, services such as abortion, sterilization, or assisted suicide"—though when it comes to religious freedom, that leaves LGBTQ people on particularly precarious ground.
“LGBTQ people, and especially transgender people, already suffer disproportionate levels of discrimination in health care settings,” Lambda Legal CEO Richard Burns said in a statement. “HHS should be in the business of making sure people get the health care they need, not trying to grant health care workers and institutions permission to turn people away.”
Last January, a religiously affiliated hospital in New Jersey denied trans man Jionni Conforti a hysterectomy, citing its status as a Catholic hospital. Oliver Knight, a trans man, is suing a Catholic hospital in Eureka, California for canceling his gender confirmation surgery "mere minutes" before it was scheduled after he was informed he did “not meet” the hospital’s “parameters for a sterilization.”
Just recently, transgender Iowans were refused gender confirmation surgeries after a last-minute amendment to the state's Medicaid plan, allowing medical providers the ability to opt out of procedures related to “transsexualism, hermaphroditism, gender identity disorder, or body dysmorphic disorder.”
But religious freedom issues in health care don't just affect transgender people. What's to keep a doctor from denying a gay man PrEP, citing moral objections? And the disturbing clip at which states are passing heartbeat laws, effectively outlawing abortion, strips women of their right to choose and sets up a battle in the Supreme Court that will determine the fate of Roe v. Wade.
Trump signed an executive order protecting religious freedom back in 2017 and in a statement, HHS claims this final rule is a fulfillment of his "promise to promote and protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious liberty." But who's going to protect the patients?
"This rule ensures that healthcare 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," OCR Director Roger Severino said in a written statement.
Well, with respect to actual religious liberty and not just the convenient kind this administration favors—see: the Muslim ban, any and everything Mike Pence stands for, etc.—those "healthcare entities and professionals" should be "bullied" out of the health care field.
Though bullying is a misleading term. The Religious [read: Christian] Right tends to believe they are victims, despite representing an overwhelming majority with outsized influence in America. Therefore, anyone who raises objections to their majority is automatically accused of bullying, even when the Religious Right's influence adversely affects truly marginalized people.
Health care, just like religious freedom, should be an inalienable right as everyone deserves access to medical services—but if one's religion precludes providing those services, then how can one call themselves a professional? And medicine, being a science, should be free from religious objections because not only do science and religion, much like church and state, tend to be incongruent with one another, religion tends to hinder progress.
A 2018 study out of the University of Rochester found that "religiosity is negatively related to science knowledge and is associated with more negative attitudes towards science." It's why we're debating whether climate change is real—it is; it's why measles has had the biggest comeback since Mariah Carey's Emancipation of Mimi phase; it's why there's an all-out assault on knowledge and truth and facts.
Religion is simply an easy scapegoat—because God or the Bible said so was never a sound argument and in the face of actual science, it's even less so. But to use religion to determine what is medically sound is not only wrong, it's dangerous, and it goes against what health care should stand for—that is, ensuring everyone gets the care they need to live a happy and healthy life. One's personal beliefs belong nowhere in that conversation.
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