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HHS To Protect Health Workers With Religious Objections


President Trump has frequently promised to protect religious freedom in this country...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.

GREENE: ...Which brings us to the Trump administration's action today. This morning, the Department of Health and Human Services is set to announce a new division for conscience and religious freedom. It will aim to protect medical professionals who object to participating in procedures that go against their beliefs. And let's talk about the implications of this with NPR's health policy correspondent, Alison Kodjak. Hi, Alison.


GREENE: All right, so what is this new division exactly?

KODJAK: So it's a division that's being created within the Office of Civil Rights, which is actually an office that has enforcement authority, so they can actually, you know, fine companies or health care institutions. They can order them to change their behavior. And what it will do is essentially allow health care workers to refuse to participate in procedures, to perhaps not treat people who are transgender if they think that goes against their moral or religious rights or participate in abortions that are needed and allow them to refuse based on their conscience. And it's a real reversal from what was in place in the - under the Obama administration.

GREENE: You say real reversal. I was wondering - I know there are some protections in some parts of the government for people and their religious beliefs. I mean, how much of a change is this?

KODJAK: Well, there are some protections out there, but under the Obama administration, there was a new regulation issued that specifically said that in the health care setting workers have to give people the health care they need, and that specifically meant that they would have to treat transgender patients and they would have to, if necessary in an emergent situation, participate in performing abortions. And so this is a bit of a change in philosophy and focus because the new head of the Office of Civil Rights has said that he believes that the right - to put it as he says - live out your religious identity has to be protected. Whereas under the Obama administration, it was more they were protecting the patient. So it's a change in the focus of this tension between religious freedom and nondiscrimination.

GREENE: OK. So if we're talking about medical professionals being able to refuse to take part in abortions, to be able to refuse to treat transgender patients, I mean, I can imagine the criticism is probably already building even before this announcement.

KODJAK: Sure is. You know, there are a lot of critics, a lot of groups weighing in already, even though this hasn't even been formally announced. Some are physician groups, and they're worried about patient care. They're saying, like, what if somebody comes into an emergency room, they happen to be transgender and they need care and someone decides they don't want to help them? It's unclear how often this might happen, but it's a real concern. There are other groups like the ACLU who essentially say this is just against the law, and they are already threatening to sue.

GREENE: So threatening to sue - I mean, could they mount a legitimate legal challenge here?

KODJAK: Well, they're - again, it's an issue of whether or not the rights of, say, a woman who is a protected class needs an abortion in an emergent situation versus the right of a health care worker not to participate in that. So there are real legal issues here. It's just unclear on what - how that will come out if it were challenged in court.

GREENE: Haven't we talked about some of this same topic in the Affordable Care Act and some recent religion-based changes in that law?

KODJAK: Yeah, exactly. In the fall, the Trump administration put out a new rule allowing employers to refuse to pay for birth control. Also if they offer up a moral or conscience objection, the Affordable Care Act required birth control coverage, and this allowed an out.

GREENE: NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak talking about changes and a new division we're going to see at the Department of Health and Human Services announced this morning. Thanks, Alison.

KODJAK: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak is a health policy correspondent on NPR's Science Desk.