The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a new final rule beefing up enforcement of the conscience rights of healthcare workers in government-funded programs overseen by HHS. Certain federal laws already guarantee that doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers and others will not be required to perform or fund abortions, sterilizations and other medical procedures that violate their consciences. The reality, however, has been a lack of federal enforcement of these guarantees prior to the current Administration.

The previous rule, issued in 2011, only provided for handling complaints based on three federal conscience protection laws. The new rule implements approximately 25 federal conscience provisions, and addresses the lack of knowledge on the part of funding recipients about existing conscience protections.

Roger Severino, the director for the HHS Office for Civil Rights, said in a statement, “Finally, laws prohibiting government-funded discrimination against conscience and religious freedom will be enforced like every other civil rights law.”

Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family, hailed the issuance of the new rule: “We are pleased to see yet another positive step from HHS designed to protect religious conscience. No state or local government that receives federal taxpayer funds related to healthcare should force healthcare professionals and others to engage in, or fund, procedures that violate their conscience.”  

Focus on the Family submitted an official “comment” in support of the interim rule published by HHS in March 2018. In it, we said: “Recent history is filled with examples of individuals, private businesses and religious organizations unfairly targeted with state and federal actions and mandates that violated their deeply held beliefs, while denying requests (or even the need) for religious exemptions.”

Some of that “recent history” referred to above includes: pro-life nurses forced to participate in abortions or lose their jobs; religious institutions required to provide insurance coverage for abortions; pro-life pregnancy resource centers forced to advertise the availability of free and low-cost abortions by the state; insurance companies ordered to provide abortion coverage in plans used by persons who object to such coverage; and doctors and insurers ordered to provide “sex-reassignment surgeries and procedures for people suffering from gender dysphoria.

The new rule will go into effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register

Related: HHS press release