Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) unveiled a new regulation aimed at reinforcing protections for healthcare providers who refuse to participate in care for religious reasons. The final rule, set to take effect on March 11, seeks to balance the religious rights of providers with the medical needs of patients seeking care.
Under the so-called conscience rule, healthcare providers can refuse to take part in procedures or treatments such as abortion, contraception, euthanasia, or gender-affirming treatments based on their religious beliefs. The rule also includes safeguards for patients to prevent discrimination if they are denied treatment.
The federal Office for Civil Rights will be responsible for enforcing the protection statutes, handling complaints, conducting investigations, and seeking resolutions. This new rule replaces a previous one that was blocked by the courts.
The decision comes at a time when an increasing number of Republican-led states have enacted abortion bans and restrictions on gender-affirming care for minors. The previous conscience rule, issued under the Trump administration, faced criticism for potentially emboldening healthcare professionals to discriminate against women, minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people with disabilities.
The Trump administration’s 2019 version of the conscience rule faced legal challenges, with federal courts ruling it defective due to inconsistency with federal civil rights law and the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. Critics of the Trump administration’s approach argued that the rule would have allowed HHS to strip funds from healthcare facilities taking action against workers for citing religious or moral objections to providing care.
In 2022, HHS also released guidance reiterating that the federal Affordable Health Care Act requires group health plans to provide contraceptive coverage at no cost, as part of preventive healthcare. This new regulation is expected to reignite debates over the balance between religious freedom and patient care in the healthcare system.