Last Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced details of its ongoing overhaul under the Trump administration. Specifically, one of these new policies will introduce so called “conscience protections” for healthcare workers; in other words, medical providers will now be able to, under the guise of protecting their religious freedom, to legally reject performing certain medical procedures, such as abortion or gender-affirming surgery, on patients. Under its newly created “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division”, the department will protect such “conscience protections”—no matter how bigoted or prejudiced—under the umbrella of the first amendment.
This stunning pushback to abortion access and transgender rights is far from unprecedented, and the sentiment behind it even less so. Instances of businesses denying services under the guise of the first amendment have garnered much support in the past, like in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Moreover, though the Supreme Court has yet to decide an official ruling on the case, the controversy around the Christian baker in Colorado denying his cake-baking services to a same-sex couple in 2012 has also been widely debated within political discourse. Historically, Roe v. Wade has protected abortion rights in the United States since 1973, but local legislation, such as the Texas law requiring institutions administering abortions to “properly” bury or cremate fetal remains, has chipped away some protections implied within the official federal ruling. Though transgender rights do not possess the same political precedents as abortion rights, President Obama during his tenure set a number of groundbreaking policies specifically aimed at protecting the rights of trans-folk. These include a presidential endorsement for the rights of transgender students in public schools via Title IX, as well as the Affordable Care Act’s ban on transgender discrimination in healthcare.
The recent overhaul, unsurprisingly, reflects the extreme anti-abortion and anti-transgender ideology of the Trump administration, but above all, it represents a dangerous step into its full implementation. Announced right before the annual March For Life—at which President Donald Trump became the first sitting president to personally give an address—the HHS’s announcement has bolstered Trump’s reputation as the most “pro-life” American president in recent history. Combined with Trump’s recent remarks on Religious Freedom Day—during which he promised to repeal the Johnson amendment (a tax provision that prevents religious institutions from participating in partisan politics)—such clear cut actions serve to embolden the pro-life portion of his political base. The exact scope of these “conscience protections” still remains unclear, despite the announcement Thursday; employees at the HHS were apparently unaware of the overhaul’s details until the official announcement. Nonetheless, in light of the Trump administration’s previous attacks on abortion access and transgender rights, this move will no doubt further marginalize communities that already face great difficulties in accessing healthcare—both cisgender women and transgender people alike. Under the guise of strengthening so called “religious freedoms,” the HHS and the Trump administration are stripping away the fundamental rights of those who seek proper healthcare to do so without the fear of prejudice or rejection.
In the midst of the government shutdown over the weekend, coverage of this story has dwindled, but the importance of this change remains the same. The current media atmosphere of endless breaking news notifications inevitably buries less exciting, but politically significant stories, which get tossed to the wayside in favor of more entertaining narratives. With a dangerously anti-abortion, and anti-transgender administration ready to pullback fundamental rights for millions of Americans, such apathy will only put the marginalized further at risk. Now more than ever, attention to such stories as well as the people left behind must drive informed and inclusive political change.
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