WASHINGTON (AP) — With abortion opponents marching in the streets of the capital, President Donald Trump’s administration on Friday announced actions in line with long-standing demands from social and religious conservatives.
The Department of Health and Human Services spelled out plans to protect medical providers who refuse to perform procedures such as abortions because of moral or religious scruples. HHS also pulled back an Obama-era policy that posed a legal roadblock to conservative states trying to cut Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood.
The announcements coincided with the annual March for Life on Washington by abortion opponents, with Trump addressing marchers via video link Friday. Vice President Mike Pence gave a preview Thursday night when he told the marchers, “In one short year, President Donald Trump has made a difference for life.”
HHS said it is proposing a new regulation that details how existing federal conscience protections will be enforced in real-world situations. That follows an announcement Thursday of a new division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights devoted to protecting the conscience rights of clinicians.
The new rule is “meant to ensure full compliance with laws that have been under-enforced,” said Roger Severino, a conservative lawyer who heads the rights office under Trump. “These provisions are standard stuff when it comes to civil rights enforcement.”
Under the regulation, hospitals, universities, clinics and other entities that receive funding from HHS programs like Medicare and Medicaid will have to certify that they comply with some 25 federal laws protecting conscience and religious rights. Most of these laws address medical procedures such as abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide. Violations could result in loss of federal funding.
Also Friday, HHS took action that may help conservative states cut or eliminate Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood. The department rescinded guidance to states from President Barack Obama’s administration that narrowed the circumstances in which they can exclude a medical provider to cases involving fraud, criminal activity or being unfit to provide care.
However, states are still required to set “reasonable” standards in determining which medical providers can participate in their Medicaid programs. In addition to providing abortions, Planned Parenthood is a major source of routine medical care for women.
The HHS action follows last year’s failure by congressional Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood.
“This will free up states to once again decide for themselves what reasonable standards may be appropriate,” said Charmaine Yoest, the top spokeswoman for HHS and previously a prominent abortion opponent.
In a statement, Planned Parenthood vice president Dawn Laguens said, “They couldn’t get the votes to pass it in Congress, so now they are pushing states to try and block care at Planned Parenthood. The law is clear: it is illegal to bar women from seeking care at Planned Parenthood.”