A federal judge has vacated a rule set to go into effect later this year which would permit doctors and other health care workers to refuse to provide medical care for personal religious reasons.
Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a new rule that would allow health care workers who have a "religious or conscience" objection to medical procedures such as birth control or sterilization to refuse to participate in those procedures, even in a tangential way. The law sought to strengthen existing protections that were already in place to protect religious freedoms of healthcare workers. The rule was set to apply to individuals and also to entire institutions, such as religious hospitals.
The rule was championed by the Trump administration, which asserted that it would give health care providers the freedom to opt out of providing care or services (such as abortion) that violate their conscience. Employers that did not comply with the rule could have had their federal funding withdrawn.
Many advocates were concerned about the potential effects of this rule. Under the current rule, patients can be denied potentially life-saving treatment if that treatment conflicts with a physician or institution's religious leanings. They feared that expanding protections could lead to even more necessary care being withheld.
A Michigan case involving a woman suffering a painful miscarriage illustrates this. A woman whose water broke after only 18 weeks of pregnancy visited Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Michigan for emergency care. Based on Catholic religious directives, the hospital sent the woman home twice, even though she was in extreme pain, there was virtually no chance the pregnancy could survive, and attempting to continue the pregnancy posed significant risks to her health. Hospital employees were unable to advise the patient that terminating her pregnancy was the safest course of action. Nor were they permitted to refer her to a different medical institution that may have been able to perform the procedure. When the patient returned for a third time, the hospital again sent her home without treatment. At this point, the woman was in extreme pain and suffering from an infection. As she was filling out her discharge paperwork, she began to deliver; only at this point did the hospital step in and provide treatment for her miscarriage.
U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer ruled Wednesday that the Department of Health and Human Services exceeded its authority and "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" in promoting the rule. According to Judge Engelmayer, DHHS violated federal law in "numerous, fundamental and far-reaching" ways. The judge vacated the rule in its entirety, approximately two weeks before it was set to go into effect.