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Biden administration partially rescinds Trump 'conscience' health care proposal
December 31 2022, 08:00

The Biden administration is proposing to partially roll back a Trump-era "conscience" rule that was struck down multiple times in court.

The Trump rule would have allowed health care workers to refuse to provide care that conflicted with religious beliefs.

In a release Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services said the proposed changes would increase access to care.

"No one should be discriminated against because of their religious or moral beliefs, especially when they are seeking or providing care," Health Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. "The proposed rule strengthens protections for people with religious or moral objections while also ensuring access to care for all in keeping with the law."

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The 39-page proposal notes that some doctors, nurses and hospitals may object for religious or moral reasons to providing or referring for abortions or assisted suicide and that respecting such objections "honors liberty and human dignity."

At the same time, it noted "patients also have autonomy, rights and moral and religious convictions. And they have health needs, sometime[s] urgent ones. Our health care systems must effectively deliver services to all who need them in order to protect patients’ health and dignity."

In 2019, under the Trump administration, the department's Office for Civil Rights issued a regulation that HHS said provided broad definitions, created new compliance regulations and created a new enforcement mechanism for a number of statutes related to the conscience rights of certain federally funded health care entities and providers. 

The 2019 "final rule" was held to be unlawful by three federal district courts. 

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"In light of these court decisions, and consistent with the administration’s commitment to safeguard the rights of federal conscience and religious nondiscrimination while protecting access to care, this [notice of proposed rulemaking] proposes to partially rescind the department’s 2019 rule while reinforcing other processes previously in place for the handling of conscience and religious freedom complaints," HHS explained. 

"Protecting conscience rights and enforcing the law to combat religious discrimination is critical," Office for Civil Rights Director Melanie Fontes Rainer said. "Today’s proposed rule would strengthen these protections and reinforce our long-standing process for handling such conscience and faith-based objections. It also would take steps to help ensure that individuals are aware of their rights."

Public comments are due 60 days after the publication of the notice in the Federal Register.