Divisions, New and Old — Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS

Lisa H. Harris

NEJM

January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of its Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, explaining that it will allow HHS’s Office of Civil Rights to “more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom” and will ensure that “no one is coerced into participating in activities that would violate their consciences, such as abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide.”1 Responses were as expected: religious conservatives hailed the new division as a needed intervention; public health and clinical leaders and advocates decried it, worrying about its impact on access to care and harm to patients.

HHS leaders’ comments to date suggest that they are uninterested in discrimination against health care providers whose consciences compel them to provide care, and uninterested in injuries to patients caused by care refusals. This framing makes conscience yet another issue dividing Americans, largely along partisan lines.


Harris LH.  Divisions, New and Old — Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS. N Eng J Med 2018 Apr 12;378(15):1369-1371. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1801154. Epub 2018 Mar 14

Recognizing conscience in abortion provision

Lisa Harris

NEJM

The exercise of conscience in health care is generally considered synonymous with refusal to participate in contested medical services, especially abortion. This depiction neglects the fact that the provision of abortion care is also conscience-based. The persistent failure to recognize abortion provision as “conscientious” has resulted in laws that do not protect caregivers who are compelled by conscience to provide abortion services, contributes to the ongoing stigmatization of abortion providers, and leaves theoretical and practical blind spots in bioethics with respect to positive claims of conscience — that is, conscience-based claims for offering care, rather than for refusing to provide it.


Harris L. Recognizing conscience in abortion provision. N Engl J Med 2012; 367:981-983