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US Health Agency Revokes Obama-era Planned Parenthood Protection

U.S. health officials on Friday said they were revoking legal guidance issued by the Obama administration that had sought to discourage states from trying to defund organizations that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials also said the department is issuing a new regulation aimed at protecting health care workers’ civil rights based on religious and conscience objections.

The regulation protects the rights of health care workers from providing abortion, euthanasia, and sterilization, the officials said during a media call with reporters.

On Thursday, HHS said it was creating a new division that would focus on conscience and religious objections, a move it said was necessary after years of the federal government forcing health care workers to provide such services.

HHS will issue a letter Friday to state Medicaid offices that will rescind the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance, which was issued after states including Indiana had tried to defund abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.

The guidance “restricted states’ ability to take certain actions against family-planning providers that offer abortion services,” HHS said in a statement.

The Medicaid program, jointly funded by states and the federal government, provides health care services to the poor and disabled. Federal law prohibits Medicaid or any other federal funding for abortion services.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said the move encourages states to try to block access to care at Planned Parenthood.

“The law is clear, it is illegal to bar women from seeking care at Planned Parenthood. Longstanding protections within Medicaid safeguard every person’s right to access care at their qualified provider of choice,” Laguens said in a statement.

New rule

The rule will enforce existing statutes that guarantee these civil rights. Roger Severino, the director of the Office of Civil Rights at HHS, said the office had received 34 complaints since President Donald Trump took office last January.

When asked by reporters if the rule would allow providers to deny care to transgender individuals based on religious objections, Severino said the rule refers to statutes that are based on providing procedures.

Experts on Thursday said the move to protect workers on religious grounds raised the possibility it could provide legal cover for otherwise unlawful discrimination, and encourage a broader range of religious objections.

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US Health Agency Revokes Obama-era Planned Parenthood Protection

U.S. health officials on Friday said they were revoking legal guidance issued by the Obama administration that had sought to discourage states from trying to defund organizations that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials also said the department is issuing a new regulation aimed at protecting health care workers’ civil rights based on religious and conscience objections.

The regulation protects the rights of health care workers from providing abortion, euthanasia, and sterilization, the officials said during a media call with reporters.

On Thursday, HHS said it was creating a new division that would focus on conscience and religious objections, a move it said was necessary after years of the federal government forcing health care workers to provide such services.

HHS will issue a letter Friday to state Medicaid offices that will rescind the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance, which was issued after states including Indiana had tried to defund abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.

The guidance “restricted states’ ability to take certain actions against family-planning providers that offer abortion services,” HHS said in a statement.

The Medicaid program, jointly funded by states and the federal government, provides health care services to the poor and disabled. Federal law prohibits Medicaid or any other federal funding for abortion services.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said the move encourages states to try to block access to care at Planned Parenthood.

“The law is clear, it is illegal to bar women from seeking care at Planned Parenthood. Longstanding protections within Medicaid safeguard every person’s right to access care at their qualified provider of choice,” Laguens said in a statement.

New rule

The rule will enforce existing statutes that guarantee these civil rights. Roger Severino, the director of the Office of Civil Rights at HHS, said the office had received 34 complaints since President Donald Trump took office last January.

When asked by reporters if the rule would allow providers to deny care to transgender individuals based on religious objections, Severino said the rule refers to statutes that are based on providing procedures.

Experts on Thursday said the move to protect workers on religious grounds raised the possibility it could provide legal cover for otherwise unlawful discrimination, and encourage a broader range of religious objections.

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US Embassies, Security Services Expected to Continue Functioning in Government Shutdown

The government has officially shut down 18 times since 1976, when the current federal budgeting process was instituted.

The last time was in 2013, in a deadlock over health care policy. The shutdown lasted 16 days and furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

What stops and what continues during a federal shutdown varies, but in 2013, 850,000 federal workers were furloughed, meaning they could not come to work. Technically, federal workers cannot be paid for those days, but in the past, they have been paid retroactively.

The 850,000 figure amounts to less than half of the federal civilian workforce of 2 million. Essential agencies, such the FBI, Border Patrol, and Voice of America, continue functioning with a skeleton staff. Air traffic controllers will stay on the job, as will federal security agents at airports.

Overseas, U.S. embassies also have “essential” staff members who will continue to perform basic duties; however, the State Department has not elaborated on what duties it could still perform in the event of a shutdown.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said his department is “ready” if the government shuts down. Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday that officials had yet to decide what services will continue but added, “We will be prepared for all contingencies.”

In 2013, immigration and citizenship services continued, but were limited. The U.S. Electronic Immigration System, which includes an “e-verify” system to help process employment applications, is expected to be unavailable during a shutdown.

U.S. mail services are expected to continue, but federal tax refunds could be delayed. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said Friday that the national parks would be open this time, especially if services are provided by third parties. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters Friday the city will pick up the trash all around the monuments on the National Mall and bill the federal government.

The National Zoo would likely close to visitors, although workers would continue to feed and care for its residents — some 1,800 animals of about 300 different species.

Based on 2013, federal courts can be expected to remain open. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has said the federal court system can function for about three weeks without needing additional funds.

Medicare insurance for the elderly is expected to continue, but research programs at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could be suspended until funding is restored.

Military personnel are expected to continue working, but civilian employees of the military would likely be placed on unpaid leave.

The Veterans Administration is expected to continue functioning, including operation of its hospitals.

Some agencies, like the federal courts and Department of State, can function for several weeks on their remaining funds. After that time, more services could be curtailed.

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US Embassies, Security Services Expected to Continue Functioning in Government Shutdown

The government has officially shut down 18 times since 1976, when the current federal budgeting process was instituted.

The last time was in 2013, in a deadlock over health care policy. The shutdown lasted 16 days and furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

What stops and what continues during a federal shutdown varies, but in 2013, 850,000 federal workers were furloughed, meaning they could not come to work. Technically, federal workers cannot be paid for those days, but in the past, they have been paid retroactively.

The 850,000 figure amounts to less than half of the federal civilian workforce of 2 million. Essential agencies, such the FBI, Border Patrol, and Voice of America, continue functioning with a skeleton staff. Air traffic controllers will stay on the job, as will federal security agents at airports.

Overseas, U.S. embassies also have “essential” staff members who will continue to perform basic duties; however, the State Department has not elaborated on what duties it could still perform in the event of a shutdown.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said his department is “ready” if the government shuts down. Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday that officials had yet to decide what services will continue but added, “We will be prepared for all contingencies.”

In 2013, immigration and citizenship services continued, but were limited. The U.S. Electronic Immigration System, which includes an “e-verify” system to help process employment applications, is expected to be unavailable during a shutdown.

U.S. mail services are expected to continue, but federal tax refunds could be delayed. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said Friday that the national parks would be open this time, especially if services are provided by third parties. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters Friday the city will pick up the trash all around the monuments on the National Mall and bill the federal government.

The National Zoo would likely close to visitors, although workers would continue to feed and care for its residents — some 1,800 animals of about 300 different species.

Based on 2013, federal courts can be expected to remain open. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has said the federal court system can function for about three weeks without needing additional funds.

Medicare insurance for the elderly is expected to continue, but research programs at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could be suspended until funding is restored.

Military personnel are expected to continue working, but civilian employees of the military would likely be placed on unpaid leave.

The Veterans Administration is expected to continue functioning, including operation of its hospitals.

Some agencies, like the federal courts and Department of State, can function for several weeks on their remaining funds. After that time, more services could be curtailed.

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US Senate Resumes Debate on Spending Measure to Avert Shutdown

With a government shutdown looming at midnight, U.S. President Donald Trump has put off plans for a weekend trip to his Florida resort pending Senate approval of a temporary spending bill.

Trump had been scheduled to attend a fundraising dinner Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of his presidency, but with Senate approval of a House-passed funding bill in doubt, White House officials said the president would stay in Washington pending resolution of the budget showdown.

Officer of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney Friday said the chance of a shutdown had “ratcheted up” to 50-50 after chances of winning enough Democratic support for the measure seemed to deteriorate.

“We were operating under a sort of 30 percent shutdown up until yesterday, I think it’s ratcheted up now,” Mulvaney told White House reporters. “We’ve had our meeting just about a half an hour ago, a teleconference with a bunch of agencies to tell them to start to implement their lapse plan, the next step in preparing for a lapse in funding, that’s what we call a shutdown.

White House legislative director Marc Short told reporters Trump had been making phone calls Friday to try to negotiate a deal, but wouldn’t say whom the president had called. “We’re trying to keep it open,” he said.

The House-passed bill would keep the government open until February 16, but the Senate ended the day without a vote that would send the temporary funding measure to the president’s desk.

In a Friday morning tweet, Trump acknowledged that Democratic votes are needed to approve the measure; but, he suggested Democrats’ demands for immigration protection could derail chances for the bill’s passage, leading to a shutdown.

Many Democrats have banded together to demand inclusion of protections for beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in any short-term spending bill. The program shields from deportation some 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to America as children. DACA recipients will lose protection from deportation within weeks unless Congress acts.

The White House Friday began a campaign to blame Democrats for any cut in government operations, calling it the “Schumer Shutdown” after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Budget Director Mulvaney rejected the contention of Democrats that the DACA issue needs urgent resolution.”There is absolutely no reason to have to insert a DACA discussion, an immigration discussion, into the funding bill today,” Mulvaney said

The office of House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement accusing Democrats of “reckless intent” to shut down the government.”

“Senate Democrats are the only ones standing in the way of a fully funded government and a reauthorized health insurance program for children. This is no time to play politics and force a shutdown,” the statement said. “This is wrong. I urge Senator Schumer and the Senate Democrats to reconsider their reckless intent to shut down the government.”

The temporary measure faces a tough road to passage in the Senate, where several Democrats must join the razor-thin Republican majority to reach the 60-vote threshold needed for it to pass. If the temporary measure is approved, lawmakers would use the interim period to negotiate a spending package to cover the rest of fiscal 2018, which ends September 30.

Eleven House Republicans voted against the spending bill Thursday, including Florida Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who vowed to vote against any legislation that did not include action for DACA recipients.

A third issue that is part of the legislation is children’s insurance. Trump objected to a measure that would extend children’s health insurance for the next six years, which had largely Democratic support but was being supported by some Republicans as a means of getting the bill passed.

The spending package being voted on did not include enough military spending to please some Republicans, it had no protections for the Dreamers, immigrants who aspire for permanent U.S. residence, and its children’s insurance provisions were less than what Democrats wanted.

House Democrats were uniformly opposed to the bill, forcing negotiations between House Speaker Ryan and the conservative House Freedom Caucus to ensure the bill would pass. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows secured commitments for future votes on military funding and a permanent legislative solution for the DACA program.

In September, President Trump ordered an end to the Obama administration program that shielded young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The U.S. government has shut down before. The last time was in 2013, in a deadlock over health care policy. The shutdown lasted 16 days and furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

What stops and what continues during a federal shutdown varies, but federal research projects could be stalled, national parks closed, tax refunds delayed, processing of veterans’ disability applications delayed, and federal nutrition programs suspended, as was the case in 2013.

The government has officially shut down 18 times since 1976, when the current federal budgeting process was instituted.

Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill contributed to this article.

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US Senate Resumes Debate on Spending Measure to Avert Shutdown

With a government shutdown looming at midnight, U.S. President Donald Trump has put off plans for a weekend trip to his Florida resort pending Senate approval of a temporary spending bill.

Trump had been scheduled to attend a fundraising dinner Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of his presidency, but with Senate approval of a House-passed funding bill in doubt, White House officials said the president would stay in Washington pending resolution of the budget showdown.

Officer of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney Friday said the chance of a shutdown had “ratcheted up” to 50-50 after chances of winning enough Democratic support for the measure seemed to deteriorate.

“We were operating under a sort of 30 percent shutdown up until yesterday, I think it’s ratcheted up now,” Mulvaney told White House reporters. “We’ve had our meeting just about a half an hour ago, a teleconference with a bunch of agencies to tell them to start to implement their lapse plan, the next step in preparing for a lapse in funding, that’s what we call a shutdown.

White House legislative director Marc Short told reporters Trump had been making phone calls Friday to try to negotiate a deal, but wouldn’t say whom the president had called. “We’re trying to keep it open,” he said.

The House-passed bill would keep the government open until February 16, but the Senate ended the day without a vote that would send the temporary funding measure to the president’s desk.

In a Friday morning tweet, Trump acknowledged that Democratic votes are needed to approve the measure; but, he suggested Democrats’ demands for immigration protection could derail chances for the bill’s passage, leading to a shutdown.

Many Democrats have banded together to demand inclusion of protections for beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in any short-term spending bill. The program shields from deportation some 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to America as children. DACA recipients will lose protection from deportation within weeks unless Congress acts.

The White House Friday began a campaign to blame Democrats for any cut in government operations, calling it the “Schumer Shutdown” after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Budget Director Mulvaney rejected the contention of Democrats that the DACA issue needs urgent resolution.”There is absolutely no reason to have to insert a DACA discussion, an immigration discussion, into the funding bill today,” Mulvaney said

The office of House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement accusing Democrats of “reckless intent” to shut down the government.”

“Senate Democrats are the only ones standing in the way of a fully funded government and a reauthorized health insurance program for children. This is no time to play politics and force a shutdown,” the statement said. “This is wrong. I urge Senator Schumer and the Senate Democrats to reconsider their reckless intent to shut down the government.”

The temporary measure faces a tough road to passage in the Senate, where several Democrats must join the razor-thin Republican majority to reach the 60-vote threshold needed for it to pass. If the temporary measure is approved, lawmakers would use the interim period to negotiate a spending package to cover the rest of fiscal 2018, which ends September 30.

Eleven House Republicans voted against the spending bill Thursday, including Florida Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who vowed to vote against any legislation that did not include action for DACA recipients.

A third issue that is part of the legislation is children’s insurance. Trump objected to a measure that would extend children’s health insurance for the next six years, which had largely Democratic support but was being supported by some Republicans as a means of getting the bill passed.

The spending package being voted on did not include enough military spending to please some Republicans, it had no protections for the Dreamers, immigrants who aspire for permanent U.S. residence, and its children’s insurance provisions were less than what Democrats wanted.

House Democrats were uniformly opposed to the bill, forcing negotiations between House Speaker Ryan and the conservative House Freedom Caucus to ensure the bill would pass. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows secured commitments for future votes on military funding and a permanent legislative solution for the DACA program.

In September, President Trump ordered an end to the Obama administration program that shielded young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The U.S. government has shut down before. The last time was in 2013, in a deadlock over health care policy. The shutdown lasted 16 days and furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

What stops and what continues during a federal shutdown varies, but federal research projects could be stalled, national parks closed, tax refunds delayed, processing of veterans’ disability applications delayed, and federal nutrition programs suspended, as was the case in 2013.

The government has officially shut down 18 times since 1976, when the current federal budgeting process was instituted.

Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill contributed to this article.

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House Panel to Release Fusion GPS Testimony on Trump-Russia Probe

The U.S. House Intelligence Committee has voted to release the transcript of its interview of Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of the research firm that assembled the infamous Trump-Russia dossier.

The transcript was expected to be released later Thursday.

Fusion GPS, based in Washington, was hired by a law firm that represented Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Fusion GPS in turn hired former British spy Christopher Steele to investigate Donald Trump’s business dealings with Russia.

The move comes on the heels of the release by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of Simpson’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel’s Republican chairman, Chuck Grassley, had not agreed to the release.

Trump slammed Feinstein for the release, calling her “sneaky Dianne,” and calling the release “underhanded” and “possibly illegal,” a claim that legal experts and lawyers dismissed as untrue.

In the Senate transcript, Simpson said Steele uncovered “alarming” evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and Trump’s team and that he gave the dossier to the FBI because he was “very concerned” about a potential national security matter.

Trump has repeatedly criticized the dossier, which was based on Steele’s investigation, calling it “bogus” and “discredited and phony.” The president also called the Russia probe the “greatest single witch hunt in American history” and urged congressional Republicans to “finally take control” of the investigation.

Feinstein said Simpson requested the transcript of his testimony be released to the public and that the American people deserved the chance to see his words and judge for themselves.

While special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating ties between Russia and Trump’s inner circle on behalf of the Justice Department, House and Senate investigations were also launched.

Earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community released a report that stated Russia had meddled in the 2016 election, showing a preference for Trump over Clinton, his opponent. Russia denies meddling in the election, and Trump has denied any collusion.

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Clock Ticks Down to Possible US Government Shutdown 

House Republicans, facing a Friday night deadline to approve funding that would keep the government running, voted 230-197 Thursday to pass a temporary spending measure.

The bill faces uncertain prospects in the Senate.

Lawmakers had two options: Either agree on a one-month temporary spending measure, known on Capitol Hill as a continuing resolution, or shut down the government until funding can be agreed upon.

If the temporary measure had been approved, lawmakers would be able to use the next month to negotiate a spending package to cover the rest of fiscal 2018, which ends September 30.

This is the fourth such vote taken in recent months.

Issues

Republican leaders in Congress were struggling to get enough support for the one-month spending measure. Some lawmakers were objecting to passing yet another temporary spending bill, and some others wanted more spending for military programs, even for a temporary bill.

Immigration was a second sticking point. A number of Democrats said they would oppose any spending plan that lacked protection for 800,000 young immigrants, known informally as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally while they were children. They were protected from deportation by an Obama-era program that President Donald Trump rescinded last year.

The third major issue was children’s insurance. Trump objected to a measure that would extend children’s health insurance for the next six years, which had largely Democratic support but was being supported by some Republicans as a means of getting the bill passed.

The spending package being voted did not include enough military spending to please some Republicans, it had no protections for the Dreamers and its children’s insurance provisions were less than what Democrats wanted.

Senate action

After passage in the House, the Senate could hold its vote on the bill Friday.

But passage in the Senate wasn’t certain. Two Republicans have announced they will not support the measure, meaning it needs support from at least 11 Democrats to reach the 60 votes required to pass.

The U.S. government has shut down before. The last time was in 2013, in a deadlock over health care policy. The shutdown lasted 16 days and furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers. 

What stops and what continues during a federal shutdown varies, but federal research projects could be stalled, national parks closed, tax refunds delayed, processing of veterans’ disability applications delayed and federal nutrition programs suspended, as was the case in 2013.

The government has officially shut down 18 times since 1976, when the current federal budgeting process was instituted.

VOA’s Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill contributed to this report.

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New Trump Office Would Protect Conscience Rights of Doctors

Reinforcing its strong connection with social conservatives, the Trump administration announced Thursday a new federal office to protect medical providers refusing to participate in abortion, assisted suicide or other procedures on moral or religious grounds.

Leading Democrats and LGBT groups immediately denounced the move, saying “conscience protections” could become a license to discriminate, particularly against gay and transgender people.

The announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services came a day ahead of the annual march on Washington by abortion opponents, who will be addressed via video link by President Donald Trump. HHS put on a formal event in the department’s Great Hall, with Republican lawmakers and activists for conscience protections as invited speakers.

The religious and conscience division will be part of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, which enforces federal anti-discrimination and privacy laws. Officials said it will focus on upholding protections already part of federal law. Violations can result in a service provider losing government funding.

No new efforts to expand such protections were announced, but activists on both sides expect the administration will try to broaden them in the future.

Although the HHS civil rights office has traditionally received few complaints alleging conscience violations, HHS Acting Secretary Eric Hargan painted a picture of clinicians under government coercion to violate the dictates of conscience.

“For too long, too many health care practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and moral convictions, leading many of them to wonder what future they have in our medical system,” Hargan told the audience.

“The federal government and state governments have hounded religious hospitals and the men and women who staff them, forcing them to provide or refer for services that violate their consciences, when they only wish to serve according to their religious beliefs,” Hargan added.

After Hargan spoke, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House, provided an example of the kind of case the new office should tackle. McCarthy told the audience he has “high hopes” that the “arrogance” of a California law known as AB 775 “will be investigated and resolved quickly.”

That law, which requires anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to post information about abortion and other services, is the subject of a free-speech challenge brought by the pregnancy centers that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the HHS civil rights office traditionally has gotten a small number of complaints involving religious and conscience rights, the number has grown since Trump was elected.

Office director Roger Severino said that from 2008 to Nov. 2016, HHS received 10 such complaints. Since Trump won, the office has received 34 new complaints. Before his appointment to government service under Trump, Severino was an expert on religious freedom, marriage, and life issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The new HHS office joins the list of administration actions seen as pleasing to social conservatives, including expanded exemptions for employers who object to providing contraceptive coverage, and the White House move to bar military service by transgender people. Those initiatives have run into legal challenges.

Critics voice concerns

Democrats, LGBT organizations and some civil liberties groups were quick to condemn the administration’s latest action.

“They are prioritizing providers’ beliefs over patients’ health and lives,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “This administration isn’t increasing freedom — they’re paving the way for discrimination.”

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., pledged to keep a close eye on the new enforcement office. “Religious freedom should not mean that our health care providers have a license to discriminate or impose their beliefs on others,” Pallone said. He is the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over many health care issues.

LGBT-rights organizations suggested some medical providers will be emboldened to shun gay, lesbian and transgender patients.

“LGBT people have already been turned away from hospitals and doctors’ offices,” said Rachel Tiven, CEO of Lambda Legal. “The Orwellian ‘Conscience and Religious Freedom’ unit simply provides guidance on how they can get away with it.”

But conservatives said the new office will help maintain balance in the health care system. It’s a world that has become increasingly secular, even if many of its major institutions sprang from religious charity.

“In the context of health care, Americans have very deep, sincere differences on a number of ethical and moral matters,” said Heritage Foundation analyst Melanie Israel. “It’s these conscience protections that allow us to work and live alongside each other despite our differences.”

Monday marks the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

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New Trump Office Would Protect Conscience Rights of Doctors

Reinforcing its strong connection with social conservatives, the Trump administration announced Thursday a new federal office to protect medical providers refusing to participate in abortion, assisted suicide or other procedures on moral or religious grounds.

Leading Democrats and LGBT groups immediately denounced the move, saying “conscience protections” could become a license to discriminate, particularly against gay and transgender people.

The announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services came a day ahead of the annual march on Washington by abortion opponents, who will be addressed via video link by President Donald Trump. HHS put on a formal event in the department’s Great Hall, with Republican lawmakers and activists for conscience protections as invited speakers.

The religious and conscience division will be part of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, which enforces federal anti-discrimination and privacy laws. Officials said it will focus on upholding protections already part of federal law. Violations can result in a service provider losing government funding.

No new efforts to expand such protections were announced, but activists on both sides expect the administration will try to broaden them in the future.

Although the HHS civil rights office has traditionally received few complaints alleging conscience violations, HHS Acting Secretary Eric Hargan painted a picture of clinicians under government coercion to violate the dictates of conscience.

“For too long, too many health care practitioners have been bullied and discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and moral convictions, leading many of them to wonder what future they have in our medical system,” Hargan told the audience.

“The federal government and state governments have hounded religious hospitals and the men and women who staff them, forcing them to provide or refer for services that violate their consciences, when they only wish to serve according to their religious beliefs,” Hargan added.

After Hargan spoke, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House, provided an example of the kind of case the new office should tackle. McCarthy told the audience he has “high hopes” that the “arrogance” of a California law known as AB 775 “will be investigated and resolved quickly.”

That law, which requires anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to post information about abortion and other services, is the subject of a free-speech challenge brought by the pregnancy centers that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the HHS civil rights office traditionally has gotten a small number of complaints involving religious and conscience rights, the number has grown since Trump was elected.

Office director Roger Severino said that from 2008 to Nov. 2016, HHS received 10 such complaints. Since Trump won, the office has received 34 new complaints. Before his appointment to government service under Trump, Severino was an expert on religious freedom, marriage, and life issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The new HHS office joins the list of administration actions seen as pleasing to social conservatives, including expanded exemptions for employers who object to providing contraceptive coverage, and the White House move to bar military service by transgender people. Those initiatives have run into legal challenges.

Critics voice concerns

Democrats, LGBT organizations and some civil liberties groups were quick to condemn the administration’s latest action.

“They are prioritizing providers’ beliefs over patients’ health and lives,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “This administration isn’t increasing freedom — they’re paving the way for discrimination.”

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., pledged to keep a close eye on the new enforcement office. “Religious freedom should not mean that our health care providers have a license to discriminate or impose their beliefs on others,” Pallone said. He is the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over many health care issues.

LGBT-rights organizations suggested some medical providers will be emboldened to shun gay, lesbian and transgender patients.

“LGBT people have already been turned away from hospitals and doctors’ offices,” said Rachel Tiven, CEO of Lambda Legal. “The Orwellian ‘Conscience and Religious Freedom’ unit simply provides guidance on how they can get away with it.”

But conservatives said the new office will help maintain balance in the health care system. It’s a world that has become increasingly secular, even if many of its major institutions sprang from religious charity.

“In the context of health care, Americans have very deep, sincere differences on a number of ethical and moral matters,” said Heritage Foundation analyst Melanie Israel. “It’s these conscience protections that allow us to work and live alongside each other despite our differences.”

Monday marks the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

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