U.S. ‘conscience rule’ on health care raises fears for LGBT+ patients

By Kate Ryan

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A pending U.S. policy allowing medical professionals to deny healthcare based on their personal or religious beliefs is raising fears that LGBT+ patients might be refused treatment.

The so-called “conscience rule” permits health workers to opt out of procedures such as abortions and sterilizations which violate their beliefs.

Opponents of the measure say it offers few limits on what constitutes a religious or personal belief and who makes those decisions.

It opens the door to denial of care for LGBT+ patients seeking surgical transitions or hormone treatment, advocates said.

“The proposed rule had been written extremely broadly,” said Jocelyn Samuels, executive director of the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

“Providers may believe they have the authorization to turn LGBTQ people away,” Samuels told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “LGBTQ people will feel chilled in seeking medical care.”

The rule will be effective 60 days from its final publication and enforced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

“This rule ensures that healthcare entities and professionals won’t be bullied out of the healthcare field because they decline to participate in actions that violate their conscience, including the taking of human life,” said OCR Director Roger Severino in a statement on Thursday when the rule was announced.

The OCR said in an emailed statement that the conscience rule, proposed more than a year ago, unites an array of various existing rules into one.

“The beauty of the American system is that there are options for everyone,” said Severino in the statement.

Under the rule, in an emergency situation a decision on providing care might put a patient’s life in jeopardy, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based LGBT+ advocacy group.

“When you’re being told by your government that you have the right to say, ‘My conscience allows me to treat LGBT people as second-class citizens,’ it will be too late by the time a resolution is reached,” she said.

The impact could affect services from doctors and nurses to receptionists, she added.

“You could have the person checking in someone say, ‘I refuse to let your doctor know you’re here because I know what you’re coming in for,’” she said. “This empowers people in the medical profession to behave badly to LGBT people.”

(Reporting by Kate Ryan, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst ((Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)