Originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on February 4th, 2018

 

Imagine you need medical attention. You go to your local hospital, but when you arrive you're turned away.  The hospital refuses to treat you because of a religious objection to the care you require.

This is a reality in our country today.  All too often, individuals and families are denied medically necessary care because a hospital, health care institution, or practitioner cites religious objections to providing treatment. To make matters worse, the Trump administration just took measures that ensure that these types of refusals will only occur more frequently.

Recently, the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) announced the creation of a new "Conscience and Religious Freedom” division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR).  Unfortunately, the new division will not focus on protecting patients’ health or rights, but will instead protect hospitals and other health care institutions, as well as individuals, that refuse to provide medical care to patients based on religious or moral objections.

The Trump administration also released a massive set of new proposed regulations that would reinstate and broaden a George W. Bush era regulation that sought to significantly expand the ability of hospitals and other health care providers to withhold from patients treatment, counseling, or even referrals based on their own religious or moral beliefs.

When announcing these new measures, the administration made no mention of the harmful consequences that will result for patients.

When announcing these new measures, the administration made no mention of the harmful consequences that will result for patients.  They will undoubtedly have the disastrous effect of emboldening religious refusals that threaten patients’ health and dignity.  We’ve already seen examples from around the country of harmful denials of care based on providers’ religious beliefs. We’ve seen pharmacies that refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control, a pediatrician that refuses to treat the child of a same-sex couple, denials of care to transgender people, and hospitals that refuse to provide emergency abortion care to women experiencing miscarriage -- even when refusing that care endangers a woman’s life.

These developments fly in the face of the Health and Human Services Department’s mission to “enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans.”  Likewise, turning the Office of Civil Rights into an agency tasked with upholding discriminatory denials of care to women, same-sex couples, and transgender people in the name of religious liberty is a cynical distortion of the Office’s true purpose.

Every person should be able to expect and receive access to healthcare without discrimination or fear that the religious beliefs of providers may endanger their health and well-being.

The new federal office and proposed regulations present especially grave dangers to people who live in rural areas.  A survey by Forward Together recently found that nearly 40% of people living in rural New Mexico are already facing serious challenges in accessing healthcare due to lack of providers, healthcare costs, and transportation difficulties.

If you live in an area where the only hospital, pharmacy, or healthcare provider within reach refuses to treat you because of religious or moral objections to your identity or the care you need, to whom will you turn?

If you live in an area where the only hospital, pharmacy, or healthcare provider within reach refuses to treat you because of religious or moral objections to your identity or the care you need, to whom will you turn?

The bottom line is that medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care. Religious liberty doesn’t include a right to be exempt from laws protecting our health or barring discrimination. Denying patients health care is not liberty. Choosing patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom.

The creation of the new HHS division and the proposed rule are just the latest in a long line of moves by the Trump administration to chip away at civil rights under the guise of religious liberty.  We should all stand firm not only against these acts of discrimination, but these very real threats to our health and well-being.

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