Biden administration to reverse Trump-era rules for medical workers

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Photo by Benoit Tessier / Reuters
Photo by Benoit Tessier / Reuters

The Biden administration is considering how to reverse Trump-era rules that allow medical workers to refuse treatment to patients on the grounds of religious or moral beliefs.

According to Politico, three separate sources close to the policy discussions say that change is on the agenda. A Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesperson confirmed the reports.

"HHS has made clear through the unified regulatory agenda that we are in the rule-making process," the HHS spokesperson said.

HHS could propose new rules as soon as the end of this month. The change in policy is seen as a rebuttal to Republican-controlled states that are moving to limit access to abortions and Transgender care.

"As state politicians continue to strip people of their sexual and reproductive rights and freedoms, it's imperative that the Biden-Harris administration revoke this discriminatory policy and help ensure [that] people can access the health care and information they need when they need it," said Jacqueline Ayers, the senior vice president of policy, organizing, and campaigns for Planned Parenthood.

"We look forward to seeing the details of the new rule and are excited about this step forward."

Trump's so-called "conscience rule," unveiled in 2018 and finalized in 2019, was itself intended to reverse Obama-era rules that required health care providers to treat patients regardless of their own personal religious convictions.

Dozens of states, cities, and advocacy groups filed suit to block the Trump rule — including Planned Parenthood — and it has never been implemented.

Had it gone forward, it would have allowed doctors, nurses, medical students, pharmacists, and other health workers to refuse to provide abortions, contraception, gender-affirming care, HIV and STD services, vasectomies, or any procedure to which they object.

Rescinding the rule is seen by activists as a key part of dismantling the Trump administration's legacy on reproductive rights, which Democrats promised to do once they took control of Washington. Last year, Biden moved to undo anti-abortion restrictions on family planning programs and foreign aid, and many groups have pushed for the "conscience" rule to be next.

"There is so much to unravel," said Leila Abolfazli, the director of federal reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center, which sued the Trump administration over the rule in 2019. "I'm encouraged that they have been working through all these pieces."

Many groups say they're reserving judgment on the new rules until they see whether the Biden administration will completely undo the Trump administration's policies or leave some parts in place.

"We look forward to seeing the proposed rule's text to ensure that the federal government safeguards patients' need for high-quality health care," said Audrey Sandusky, the spokesperson for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.

"This action will go a long way toward strengthening patient access to high-quality health care and protecting the integrity of key HHS programs, including the Title X family planning program," she added.

The planned rules changes are currently under review at the Office of Management and Budget, which is often the final step before a proposed regulation goes public.