Federal judge strikes down Trump’s Pro-Life conscience rules, showing need for states to act

Last month, a federal judge struck down a Trump Administration rule that ensures conscience protections for healthcare workers who have a moral or religious objection to committing abortions or euthanasia.  The rules, which the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) promulgated in May, were a great change from the Obama administration’s, which routinely ignored protests and objections. Of course this ruling was political, which shows the need for Texas to independently act to protect the consciences of those working in health care. 

Breaking from the Obama Administration, President Trump issued new rules for the OCR to uniformly enforce current federal laws that protect the consciences of health care workers.  The Trump conscience rules, which were finalized on May 22 and set to take effect on November 22, would have required strict compliance with these federal laws, and afford health care workers the ability to opt out of performing medical services to which they conscientiously object without fear of retaliation. Furthermore, if the employer tried to punish the objector, the new rules provided an avenue for the objector to seek restitution.

Unfortunately, the rule may not take effect and the Trump HHS may be forced to formulate a new set of rules.  Judge Paul A. Engelmayer, the federal district judge who struck down the new rules, claimed they extended beyond HHS’ rule-making authority and that the justifications for doing so were factually unfounded.  HHS and the Justice Department are still determining whether or not they will appeal the decision.

Protecting consciences in medicine is absolutely critical, particularly as new scientific and medical technology poses new moral questions.  Science fiction is quickly becoming reality. Experienced and talented physicians, nurses, and other workers in medicine will rightly find many of these practices morally repugnant.  Should they be forced violate their consciences? Or should they have to leave medicine as some bioethicists are suggesting

Sadly, these coercions to violate conscience already occur.  News broke earlier this year of a Vermont hospital illegally forcing a nurse into assisting an elective abortion.  Stories like this will only become more common under anti-Life presidents, and in a medical industry that more and more places profits above morals.  

Texas must lead to protect the consciences of health care workers.  Currently, only two Texas statutes explicitly protect the consciences of medical professionals: the Texas Insurance Code provides that health maintenance organizations, physicians, and providers are not required to perform or advise on any healthcare service that violates their religious convictions; and the Texas Occupations Code allows certain medical staff to refuse to participate in an abortion.

However, there are some critical flaws in the current conscience policies.

For instance, the laws do not protect medical professionals from civil penalties or broader punishments. The protections do not extend to the numerous healthcare services that may violate a medical professional’s conscience. And the lack of conscience protection laws at the state level keeps the Texas Attorney General from fully protecting Texas clinicians, which means Texans must rely on the federal government for protection — which will not work if an anti-Life president is in office!  More comprehensive legislation is necessary to supplement current state laws and ensure the full protection of conscience in medicine. 

Federal protections are too narrow, and even the enforcement of those protections depends on the views of a partisan judiciary and a changing chief executive.  Protecting the consciences of healthcare workers is a Pro-Life issue, because failure means many Pro-Lifers will have to leave medicine altogether. Where the federal government has repeatedly failed, Texas must lead.  Our state can do so by prioritizing protecting conscience rights for health care professionals next time the State Legislature convenes.