Trump’s New Health Division Embodies Institutional Oppression, Not “Religious Freedom”

Sen. James Lankford speaks at a news conference announcing a new division on Conscience and Religious Freedom as Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino, center, and Acting Secretary Kevin Hargan, at right, at the Department of Health and Human Services January 18, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images)Sen. James Lankford speaks at a news conference announcing a new division on Conscience and Religious Freedom as Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino (center) and Acting Secretary Kevin Hargan (right) lat the Department of Health and Human Services look on, January 18, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images)

The Trump administration today announced the creation of what it is calling a “new conscience and religious freedom division” within the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The purpose of this new division is to protect health care workers who object to the treatment of transgender individuals and to the provision of abortion and other reproductive health care, among other things.

Speaker after speaker invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to defend the expansion of the so-called conscience and religious freedom division.

At a mid-morning press conference, led by HHS OCR Director Roger Severino and a host of other anti-LGBTQ lawmakers and leaders, speaker after speaker invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to defend the expansion of the so-called conscience and religious freedom division. HHS leaders compared health care workers forced to treat transgender patients or provide reproductive health care against their moral and religious objections to civil rights leaders who spoke out against anti-Black discrimination and violence. They praised the new division as a critical step in the protection of religious freedom.

There is no question that the freedom of religion is a central tenet of US law protected both in the First Amendment to the US Constitution and in federal statutory law. But religious liberty does not permit a health care worker to refuse to treat a transgender patient because that worker does not believe that transgender people should exist. Religious liberty does not permit a doctor to deny life-saving care because the care could result in the termination of a pregnancy or sterilization. Religious liberty cannot be used to widen the door to systemic discrimination against LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and people of color — discrimination that already has led and will inevitably lead to pain, suffering and premature death.

Today’s action by the Trump administration encourages widespread discrimination in the provision of health care.

Health care discrimination is already all too familiar to transgender people. Many of us avoid the doctor when we are sick to avoid the humiliation we face in waiting rooms, from hospital staff, and from the providers who are supposed to protect and treat our bodies and minds. In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, of the more than 27,000 transgender respondents, one-third who had seen a health care provider in the past year reported having at least one negative experience related to being transgender. For many of us, these negative experiences characterized any and every visit to the doctor: invasive questions about our genitals when seeking flu shots; refusal to touch our bodies; insistence on calling us by the wrong name and gender pronoun; questions about our sex lives and practices; refusal to provide contraceptive care; and outright refusals to treat us at all.

Rather than encourage medical professionals to treat all patients and ensure that no one is denied care because of who they are, the condition from which they suffer or how their body looks, today’s action by the Trump administration instead encourages widespread discrimination in the provision of health care. It sends the message that women, trans people, LGB people and non-binary people do not and should not have agency over our bodies.

Speakers at this morning’s press conference, including Severino, cited Martin Luther King Jr. in defense of the newly created division. They likened their proclamation to Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Severino also compared requiring doctors to treat trans people to the Nazi practice of forcing Jews to inscribe sacred texts on the soles of their shoes (thus violating their religious laws). The same administration that has systemically targeted and expelled immigrants of color from the United States, attacked Black athletes, expanded the mass incarceration machine, and refused to denounce white supremacist and Nazi activities is invoking Black civil rights leaders to defend their sweeping efforts to undermine the very civil rights laws those leaders died defending.

Perhaps today’s speakers forgot to read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in its entirety. King wrote of conscience in the context of the pain of systemic anti-Black discrimination and the cost to his family and community:

[W]hen you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Today’s announcement cannot be extricated from the larger policy goals of this administration. These goals include increasing the numbers of white immigrants while targeting immigrants of color for deportation, restricting access to reproductive health care, excluding trans people from public life and legal protection, expanding policing and deportation forces, restricting voting access, and sending a message to so many of us that we are not a part of or welcome in society.

When our bodies are cast as deviant and our health needs rejected, places of healing become sites of violence.

Fear of discrimination and violence already takes an enormous toll on the health and well-being of so many. Further institutionalizing the ability to reject health care for whole groups of people will inevitably lead to devastating health outcomes and likely death for many people.

When our bodies are cast as deviant and our health needs rejected, we become perilously situated. Places of healing become sites of violence. Preventive care is avoided, and preventative and curable diseases become fatal.

With today’s announcement, HHS not only distorts Dr. King’s legacy but also further entrenches the very injustices he condemned from the Birmingham jail in the letter that Severino and others invoked today.

This is not a story of religious freedom but of institutional oppression. This is an effort to sanction the rejection of whole groups of people and further institutionalize control over our bodies, our health needs and our lives.

It is dangerous and we will fight back.