The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is expected to issue regulations soon overriding medical conscience protections and mandating unethical procedures that are harmful to patients. This new regulation complies with prior actions of HHS under the current presidential administration that violate the rights of medical conscience.
The new HHS regulations would in effect destroy access to Catholic medical care and other faith-based care at all levels that are the backbone of caring for patients, especially the poor, in our country.
HHS regulations would also undermine human dignity in the medical care of patients and seriously harm pro-life care in America. Unless the HHS settlements are struck down by the courts immediately, these settlements would further trigger a breakdown of civil rights in America and cause serious harm to the life, health, and dignity of all patients, including the unborn, the underserved and the vulnerable.
First, HHS made its intentions clear in its legal documents by Whitman Walker Clinic v. HHS that the department intends to issue a regulation under section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act that will compel healthcare professionals to perform procedures that many find unethical and harmful. Among many problems, The legal filing reveals that HHS plans to revise this nondiscrimination policy by making it discriminatory for medical professionals and health care entities to refuse to perform abortions, transgender surgeries, and other procedures.
Many medical professionals believe that such procedures are unethical and harmful to patients. This same legal filing strongly suggests that HHS intends to offer no conscience or religious exemption. Such regulatory action would result in the violation of the ethical, moral and religious beliefs of countless health care workers, faith-based hospitals and medical practices. Such regulatory action by HHS would also violate existing federal conscience laws, such as the Church Amendmentand the First Amendment to the Constitution.
This regulatory measure would also allow make Catholic health care virtually illegal. How? By mandating transgender procedures and the performance of abortions, the settlement would make it impossible for Catholic medical professionals to follow the Ethical and Religious Guidelines for Catholic Health Services, a key bioethics document applying Catholic teaching to the practice of medicine. Such a regulatory measure would prevent religious health professionals and medical institutions from living their mission to love and care for their patients.
Second, HHS has signaled its intention to cancel the Medical Conscience Regulations of the previous Presidential Administration which authorized the application of existing federal conscience laws. Bipartisan majorities in Congress have renewed these conscience laws for decades. Not only does HHS persist in its refusal to enforce existing federal laws (see University of Vermont Medical Center Case), it is also about to violate the separation of powers by legislating under the guise of regulating in order to defy the express will of Congress to protect conscience rights.
Our civil rights of medical conscience and religious freedom are essential to uphold the principle of “do no harm” to the patient, because ethical, moral and religious convictions are the basis of the belief that each person has equal dignity. Without the exercise of ethical, moral and religious beliefs in medicine, the protection of human dignity will crumble.
Because the rights of conscience and religious freedom are grounded in the equal dignity of each person, these rights enable individuals and faith-based organizations to exercise their highest belief: the moral obligation to love God and neighbor.
This fundamental belief of people of faith has helped bring about virtually all advances in human dignity and equality in America. It was the moral and religious beliefs of abolitionists that became a tidal wave of action helping to bring down the evil of slavery. It was the moral and religious convictions of a multiracial faith-based coalition of pastors, priests, rabbis, lawyers, activists, teachers, union members and others that brought down the evil of Jim Crow segregation. It was the moral and religious convictions of a multiracial group of religious leaders, teachers, professors, philanthropists and others throughout America’s post-Civil War history that enabled Afro – Americans in my family and countless other families to advance in our education and uplift our communities.
Historically, and still today, it is the moral and religious convictions of Catholic nuns and health care workers that drive them to love and care for underserved African American communities. Health professionals in faith-based and religious health facilities can live out their mission to serve the vulnerable because our nation protects medical conscience and religious freedom.
HHS should back down, abide by the will of Congress instead of opposing it, and appreciate what bipartisan presidential administrations have believed for decades: that the rights of conscience and religious freedom protect the freedom to love and to protect human dignity in America.
We should applaud the current presidential administration for getting it right, like understanding the need for paid family medical leave, especially for at-risk pregnant women and their families. But we have an obligation to voice our concerns when the administration is wrong. Here, HHS efforts to undermine religious liberty and conscience would erode the instruments of love, healing, and restoration so vital to all Americans, especially the most vulnerable.
If we believe that love is the highest good in America, we must uphold medical conscience and religious freedom and live out God’s command to care for our neighbors, especially in the medical care of our brothers and sisters.
Louis Brown, Jr. JD, is executive director of the Christ Medicus Foundation and a former political representative for the US Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration.