The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) announced on Thursday the formation of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights.
The purpose of this division is to champion the religious freedoms and personal beliefs of health providers over the public's right to receive necessary care. Make no mistake, this is not about protecting religion, this is about about invoking religion as a means of denying care or discriminating against women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
I personally think that a conscionable religious person of any faith should be deeply offended to see how others are invoking their religion.
The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division isn’t relying on any new laws for this. Instead they are bending their interpretation of the First Amendment to an extreme that would make the Founding Fathers of this country feel abject horror. This is a practice that started with Bush Junior, which was then narrowed in its scope under Obama, and is now pushing its limits to new extremes with Trump’s guidance.
Specifically, Roger Severino, the Director of the Office of Civic Rights said, “Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced. No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice. For too long, governments big and small have treated conscience claims with hostility instead of protection, but change is coming and it begins here and now.”
Let me repeat that. “No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions.” How is that ever a choice? How does a person have a moral conviction that includes denying care to sick people? There is no morality there, there is no goodness there, and I daresay there is no religion in that decision.
If you look at the Sikh religion, they wear a turban called a dastar. This dastar is an article of their faith that represents courage, spirituality, piety, honour, and self-respect. This article is so important that Sikhs have chosen wear it instead of helmets during war. They have gone on hunger strikes to be able to wear it in prison.
However, given all of that, they will instantly remove it in the case of an emergency or to help someone else. News articles about incidents where this has happened almost always portray it as the Sikh man breaking his faith to save someone, but in reality they are upholding the core tenets of their faith by helping others, and a failure to act would be the real sacrilege.
Allowing a person to wear a dastar in prison or in the army is a positive representation of personal religious freedom. Religious freedom, which this country was founded on, is meant to allow every person to practice their own faith, so long as it doesn’t infringe or impose on the rights of others.
Imagine getting care from a doctor who is a Jehovah’s Witness and who is now legally able to base their care on the tenets of their faith. Imagine being in an emergency situation away from home and being told that the doctor is going to do their best to stabilize your injuries but that they won't provide a blood transfusion due to their religious conviction and you might die because of it.
As a patient, it makes sense that a person should be able to choose healthcare that operates in accordance with their personal beliefs, but it doesn’t follow that this should be a two-way street where doctors are able to practice faith on their patients. I think that violates everything this country was founded on.
I was actually setting out to write this article within the frame of the dangers it poses to the LGBTQ+ community, but became more disappointed in the mockery this new direction makes of religion. However, it’s still worth saying that the risk it poses to my community is severe.
First, there is the chilling effect that makes LGBTQ+ individuals more afraid to seek healthcare or go to the hospital in the first place. Doctors don’t advertise their discriminatory beliefs, so it’s a shot in the dark, when you’re looking for care, if a doctor will treat you like a person or a demon.
Second, they might also turn you away, which has to be a completely alien concept to most people living in this area. To think that a person could go in because they have the flu, then be told to go home without being treating because their kind isn’t welcome. That’s a really messed up healthcare system.
This isn’t alarmist speculation, this already happens. We’ve seen trans people die because an ambulance wouldn’t admit them. We already hide our LGBTQ+ status because of fear of mistreatment, harassment, or abuse. We aren’t worried that bad things will happen, we’re worried the bad things that already are happening will get worse.
While we’re talking about a bad situation getting worse, let’s talk about abortion. Given the incredibly limited abortion options in the area, it’s safe to say no local doctors are performing abortions against their will, but this change is still going to affect the level of care that women receive with regard to contraception and reproductive issues, increasing the number of unwanted pregnancies.
It is nobody's goal to make abortion more common and the solution to this problem isn’t to make treatment harder to get. A real solution means taking steps making the need for abortion more rare, things like comprehensive sexual education and better systems of support for mothers and fathers who do want to conceive. There is a lot more that people can do to have a positive impact on families than bullying vulnerable women.
I’d like to close by saying I’m not someone who is offended by the HHS direction here, but I am disappointed. This will lead to people in the LGBTQ+ community dying, not hypothetically, but as an evidence-based fact.
Despite the many times Director Severino talked about conscience and religious freedoms in his statements, this is a travesty of both.
Here is a link to the official statement: https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2018/01/18/hhs-ocr-announces-new-conscience-and-religious-freedom-division.html
[Editor’s note: Faye Seidler is North Dakota Safe Zone Project Spokeswoman]
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