By Bob Vitale
As the medical profession takes a step forward with efforts to recognize and respect the unique needs of LGBTQ patients, here comes the Trump administration with an attempt to undo that progress.
A new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will back the rights of doctors and other healthcare professionals who refuse to do any parts of their jobs that they feel goes against their religious or moral beliefs.
Although news coverage of the new division has focused primarily on abortion services—the announcement was timed to coincide with a Washington rally by opponents of abortion rights—it also has a huge impact on LGBTQ Americans.
The new division and the rules it will enforce could allow emergency room doctors, for instance, to refuse to treat children of gay or lesbian parents. Health professionals could cite their religious beliefs as justification to turn away transgender patients or anyone who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community.
“No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions,” Roger Severino, the Trump appointee who heads the HHS Office of Civil Rights, said in announcing the new division.
Severino is a well-documented opponent of LGBTQ civil rights. When he was appointed by Trump in 2017, HRC called him a “radical anti-LGBTQ-rights activist.”
He once called sexual orientation and gender identity “changeable, self-reported and entirely self- defined characteristics.” In a 2016 essay critical of Obama administration rules barring medical discrimination against LGBTQ patients, Severino described gender dysphoria as scientifically controversial and referred to gender-confirmation surgery merely as “amputating well-functioning organs of the human body.”
Dr. Chad Braun, chief medical officer for Equitas Health, the LGBTQ-focused health system that also publishes Prizm, says the ideas advanced by the Department of Health and Human Services go against the tenets of the medical profession.
“You pledge to take care of any patient who needs medical service,” he says.
Beyond the immediate potential harm to LGBTQ patients who seek medical services, Braun says, the federal government is sending a harmful message by putting its power behind providers who want to pass moral judgment on patients.
Equitas Health, MetroHealth’s Pride Clinics in Northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for LGBT Care, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs centers and other health networks have directed services specifically for LGBTQ patients. Medical professionals urge LGBTQ people to be open and honest with their doctors about their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We certainly wouldn’t want to force patients back into the closet,” Braun says. “It’s been a long struggle to get a population with a history of stigma and fear to move past that.”
Mike Bricker, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, says the Trump administration has changed religious freedom from a shield that protects against government overreach into a sword that attacks the rights of others.
“We have to let medicine and science guide these decisions, not religious beliefs,” he says.