‘Conscience’ division at HHS aims to reignite culture wars

Austin American-Statesman, February 6, 2018

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Do we want government to protect religious liberty or enforce religious dogma?

Did you know that health care workers are complaining to the federal government that they’re suffering from discrimination by employers for declining to give care that violates their religious beliefs? I didn’t either. What’s more, in 30 years of providing health care, I’ve never heard of an employee who felt their religious freedoms were being threatened.

Roger Serevino heads civil-rights enforcement at HHS.

But the regulation-averse Trump administration thinks it’s such a pressing problem that on Jan. 18, it announced a proposed new regulation and the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the civil rights office of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The announcement was made Jan. 18, carefully choreographed for the day before the March for Life in Washington D.C., giving anti-abortion activists renewed energy.

The new section will handle complaints from health workers who feel their religious or moral beliefs are being violated, for example by having to care for transgenders or by being forced to perform or assist with procedures such as abortion, assisted death or sex reassignment surgery.

Roger Severino was a devout anti-gay, anti-abortion activist before being tapped to head civil-rights enforcement at HHS. His new conscience division is charged with investigating complaints made by health care workers. He attempted to explain the initiative on NPR’s All Things Considered on Jan. 18 saying, “The government should not be saying, you cannot have a job; you cannot be a nurse because of your views on abortion. This is about tolerance on all sides.”

What on earth is this man talking about? How can any health care worker’s freedom of religion be threatened in a health care setting? This is a free country. If abortion offends your religious beliefs, don’t work in a setting that provides them. Health care settings are not in short supply — go find another one. No one’s forcing you to work where you do.

And if it offends your religious beliefs to care for transgenders, gays or anyone else not like you, then you’re in the wrong profession. Go back and read your professional code of ethics. Every health care discipline has a code that prohibits discrimination against patients. Nursing’s, for example, reads in part, “The nurse practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person … The nurse’s primary commitment is to the patient.” If you can’t practice under those principles, go find another line of work. You are a danger to our patients.

About one such claim was made per year of the Obama administration. But 34 complaints arose during Trump’s first year. Is anyone surprised by the 34-fold increase?

After more than 50 years of policy successes to bring civil rights to discriminated-against groups of people, Trump’s election threw open the closet doors of suppressed white supremacists and other bigots. Silent no more! Ku Klux Klansmen can now throw off their hoods, stand up tall and march defiantly through the streets with torches chanting muck against Jews, blacks and browns, like they did in Charlottesville — with the support of our president.

Let’s put these 34 complaints into perspective. With more than 18 million health care workers in this country, 34 represents 0.00000189 of one percentage point of workers. That’s enough to open a new agency division?

Apparently, the meaning of “religious freedom” has evolved from the freedom to practice no religion or the religion of your choice to freedom to discriminate against others under the guise of religion. Do we want government to protect religious liberty or enforce religious dogma?

This meaningless initiative appears designed to reignite the culture wars over “conscience protections.” It won’t work, but it will cost taxpayer money, and it will harm patients by limiting their access to needed services. I guess HHS is no longer concerned with patients’ civil rights.

This and many other Republican initiatives, such as the bathroom bill from Texas’ last legislative session, are all answers to questions no one is asking. Wouldn’t it be nice if government would come up with answers to questions people are asking? Like how do we secure health care for everyone?

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN, CNS, FAAN, is a lifelong Austin resident and retired editor and neonatal intensive care nurse. She writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.