Catholic officials are supporting last week’s announcement that the Department Health and Human Services’s new division on religious liberty will allow health professionals to deny some medical services to LGBT patients,
Last week, in the latest move by the Trump administration undermining LGBT rights, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the formation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. As part of the Department’s civil rights office, the division is designed to protect healthcare providers who say their consciences or religious beliefs do not permit them to perform certain medical services
Sr. Carol Keehan, D.C., president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said the new division is a positive step in protecting consciences. According to an article in America magazine, she said:
“‘Everyone’s conscience is important; there are services that [C.H.A. members] will not offer because of our conscience, but any services that we do offer are available to everybody.’ . . .”
The article continued with Keehan’s affirmation that LGBT people will continue to receive routine medical care at Catholic hospitals:
“Sister Keehan said that the new office would have no impact on the way transgender and same-sex couples and their children would be treated by Catholic health care providers. ‘Transgender patients have heart attacks,’ she said, ‘transgender patients have gallbladder surgery, and transgender patients can have bad infections that need our attention just like the rest of us. And they need to know they are welcome and they will not be looked down upon’ if they come to Catholic institutions seeking help.”
Keehan said there would be no doors closed to patients at Catholic hospitals as a result of the new HHS division. However, she also affirmed the current policy at many Catholic institutions which refuse to provide gender-confirming procedures to transgender patients.
The new HHS division was welcomed in a joint statement by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who are, respectively, the chairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Committee for Religious Liberty. Focusing their statement on abortion without mention of LGBT healthcare, they appealed for a “permanent legislative relief” that would allow people claiming they have been discriminated against because of conscience refusals the ability to sue.
Meanwhile, DignityUSA said in a statement that the division “puts the lives and health of LGBTQI people at risk” and was “a perversion of the true meaning of religious freedom.”
Church officials’ endorsement of the Trump administration’s effort to discriminate is dangerous. Despite Sr. Keehan’s claims that LGBT people will not face discrimination at Catholic hospitals, several cases where transgender patients have been denied medically necessary healthcare at Catholic hospitals have already occurred. Failure to take the unique needs of LGBT patients into account will prevent healthcare providers from offering competent and high-quality healthcare. Right-wing groups, including Catholic ones, will now be further emboldened to cause harm based on claims of religious liberty. In short, people will be hurt.
But there is time for Catholic healthcare to choose an alternative path in fidelity to the Gospel and respecting the pluralism in society. Turning to the Church’s rich traditions on non-discrimination, human dignity, a proper understanding of conscience and religious liberty, and the common good, Catholic officials can find a way to not only include but defend LGBT patients. Or, turning to medical ethics, simply “do no harm.”
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 21, 2018