Trump administration creates new religious, moral protections for health workers

The Trump administration has created new protections for health workers who have religious and moral objections to certain procedures, such as abortion or assisted suicide. 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Thursday it will create a new division under the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) responsible for investigating complaints filed by workers claiming that their employers have violated their religious rights.

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The changes represent a major shift for the OCR, which in the past has primarily focused on enforcing patient safety and privacy concerns. 

"No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice," OCR Director Roger Severino said at the announcement ceremony Thursday morning. 

"We are saying, with the launch of this division, you do not need to shed your religious identity, you do not need to shed your moral convictions to be a part of the public square."

The new division, called the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, will enforce "laws and regulations that protect conscience and prohibit coercion on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide" in HHS-funded or conducted programs," according to OCR's updated website.

Workers who say they experienced discrimination because they refused to participate in specific medical procedures, including abortion, or were coerced into doing so, can now file a complaint with the office.

Severino said the office has received 34 complaints since Trump took office.

Republicans and anti-abortion groups often complained that the Obama administration did not enforce federal laws that protect health workers and institutions from having to violate their religious or moral beliefs by participating in abortions or other procedures.

The change represents a major win for religious and anti-abortion groups, and comes one day before the March for Life, an annual march against abortion in D.C. 

Trump is expected to tout the changes during a live satellite address to attendees Friday. 

"This is a welcome change from the Obama administration’s stubborn refusal to enforce federal laws that prohibit discrimination against health care entities," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. 

Democrats and other critics worry the changes could restrict access to health care for some. 

“I am deeply troubled by reports of the unconscionable approach being considered by President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE’s Administration to use the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services as a tool to restrict access to health care for people who are transgender and women," Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate Dem: Republicans have 'predetermined' outcome of Kavanaugh hearing Sunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Overnight Health Care: HHS diverts funds to pay for detaining migrant children | Health officials defend transfers | Lawmakers consider easing drug company costs in opioids deal MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Health Committee, said in a statement. 

"This would be yet another attempt to let ideology dictate who is able to get the care they need. Any approach that would deny or delay health care to someone and jeopardize their wellbeing for ideological reasons is unacceptable. We need to work to ensure everyone has access to quality, affordable health care, no matter who they are.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also announced it would take legal action.

“Denying patients health care is not liberty," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the ACLU. 

"Choosing your patients based on their gender or gender expression is not freedom. Should the administration choose to move forward to implement a discriminatory policy, we will see them in court.”

Updated: 11:31 AM EST.