(Courtesy photo)

Court to hear lawsuit challenging health care ‘conscience’ rule

Trump administration policy would allow providers to refuse care on religious, moral grounds

A federal judge will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on a controversial Trump administration rule that would allow health care workers to refuse to provide services like abortion and sterilization if they cite a religious or conscientious objection.

Issued by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year as a means to protect the religious rights of health care providers and religious institutions, the “conscience protection” rule faced immediate backlash from opponents who say it will undermine reproductive health care access and lead to discrimination against LGBTQ patients and others.

Three federal lawsuits brought by 15 states in addition to California, the City and County of San Francisco and Santa Clara County sought to block the rule from taking effect. If upheld by the federal courts, the rule would take effect Nov. 22.

Prior to the 8 a.m. hearing Wednesday at the Phillip Burton Federal Building and Courthouse, members of SEIU 1021, a union representing employees in local government, nonprofit agencies, health care programs and schools throughout Northern California, will rally in support of preserving equal access to health care, according to SEIU 1021 member Rachel Perry Limon, a registered nurse at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

“The new HHS rule endangers patients, will make my and other healthcare providers’ jobs more difficult and conflicts with the basic values I hold as a healthcare provider — which is to ensure patients receive safe, high-quality health care at all times, regardless of their social position, lifestyle and personal circumstances,” Limon said.

Despite fears that such a rule would embolden clinicians to discriminate against women and LGBTQ patients, proponents say it’s their right to religious freedom that’s infringed upon if the rule doesn’t take effect.

In a written statement published in May when the rule was introduced, Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, said, “This rule ensures that healthcare entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the health care field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life.”

HHS agreed to delay the rule’s effective date until Nov. 22, “in order to allow the parties more time to respond to the litigation and to grant entities affected by the rule more time to prepare for compliance,” according to the HHS website.

Limon and Sasha Cuttler, a registered nurse at ZSFGH, will provide friend of the court testimony at Wednesday’s hearing in support of the lawsuit against the rule.

“We are going to be there tomorrow to say that this is something that we will not tolerate — this is not permissible,” Cuttler said. “We’re going to rededicate ourselves to our duty to care for people, and we won’t let religion be used as an excuse for homophobia, transphobia and in opposition to women’s health care.”

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