A new office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will allow health care workers to refuse to provide medical services or perform related duties if doing so violates their religious or moral beliefs. In other words, it will allow them to discriminate widely—and LGBTQ people and families are at risk.
The new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division will be, ironically, part of the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the Trump administration announced today. The division’s website says it will handle complaints from health care workers who believe they have experienced discrimination because they objected to, refused to participate in, or were coerced into participating in procedures including abortion, sterilization, and assisted suicide, or more generally, “procedures that are against your religious or moral beliefs.”
LGBTQ organizations have been quick to call this what it is: a license to discriminate. Lambda Legal says the new rule under which the division will operate “is designed to facilitate refusals of medically necessary care for individuals who are transgender or in a same-sex relationship, as well as the full range of reproductive health services and any other services to which an employee or a licensed health facility might object.”
This necessary care that could be withheld includes much related to parenting, including “Treatment of patients who are unmarried or in a same-sex relationship and require infertility treatment or other medical services related to pregnancy, childbirth or pediatric needs.” Such discrimination is not hypothetical. A decade ago, Lambda Legal client Guadalupe Benitez “was refused standard infertility treatment by infertility specialists in a for-profit medical practice based on the physicians’ religious objections to treating lesbian patients like the doctors’ other patients.” Lambda fought for and won a settlement for her.
Lambda Legal and Family Equality Council also filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court last October in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, detailing many other cases of discrimination against LGBTQ people and their children in health care, Family Equality reminds us. They include a same-sex couple in Tennessee turned away by multiple providers when seeking midwifery care and birthing classes, and the child of a lesbian couple being refused emergency treatment by a pediatric dentist “who told the parent that ‘a child cannot have two mothers’ and demanded to see the ‘real mother’ and a birth certificate before treating the child.” HHS’ new rule would only make such discrimination easier.
The move comes during the continued advance of so-called “religious freedom” laws that allow child-placement agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ prospective parents and others if serving them conflicts with the agencies’ religious beliefs or moral convictions. Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Virginia had such laws already; in 2017, similar bills passed in Alabama, South Dakota, and Texas. Some of these laws also allow agencies to refuse to serve certain children, to deny children services to which the agency objects (like hormone therapy, contraceptives, or affirming mental health care) or force them to undergo discredited “conversion therapy,” as the Human Rights Campaign detailed in a recent report.
Issues of reproduction and parenting are only part of the picture, however. The new rule would allow providers to refuse many other services such as counseling or other treatments for gender dysphoria; bereavement counseling after the loss of a same-sex partner; and care for patients living with HIV, Lambda notes. This impacts all LGBTQ people, including LGBTQ children and youth. For LGBTQ parents, this impacts both us and our children (who are often affected when a parent does not receive needed care).
This is yet another infuriating example of the administration’s narrow-minded bigotry. Stay hopeful, though, and be thankful for the many LGBTQ-supportive health care providers (while recognizing that not all of us have the same access to them, and that’s a problem, too). PFLAG National Executive Director Jaime Grant perhaps put it best when she said, “This president needs to return to his doctor and have his head examined AGAIN if he thinks the LGBTQ community is going back to the day when anyone, anywhere can turn their backs on our medical needs and our right to compassionate, LGBTQ-affirming health and reproductive care. Our community will continue to stand strong, working alongside our families and allies to stand up for fairness and justice—and for our very lives.”