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The religious (lack of) conscious rule
by Matt Simonette
2019-05-08

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It is time for all government officials to start acknowledging "religious conscience" for what it is—a heavy-handed and high-minded euphemism for discrimination.

The Trump Administration's May 2 sop to the president's right-wing base—the so-called "conscience rule" first announced in Jan. 2018 but finalized just now—places women, LGBT persons and any other person with minority status in jeopardy.

The rule allows healthcare professionals—and entire hospitals and healthcare systems—the right to refuse to deliver services that they might find objectionable on the basis of their religious or moral scruples; employers can similarly refuse to offer insurance for services they find objectionable. Thousands of possible slippery slopes have now fallen away before the American public.

Legislators and the public need to call out this rule for being the straw man argument that is. There is no epic battle between religious consciousness and medical bureaucracy. The rule is based on a perspective of religion that seems to engage only the basest, most reductive instincts of its followers.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans attend houses of worship that command them to be mindful of social justice and good deeds. Hundreds of thousands of Americans attend houses of worship that command them to feed and care for the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Americans attend houses of worship that command them to respect their neighbors. The president and his supporters don't seem too concerned about respecting those particular religious principles though.

It's not the responsibility of patients or lawmakers to contend with internal religious conflicts that might arise within those delivering healthcare services, if that is even a widespread problem ( we're not convinced it is ). At the moment of service-delivery—a moment when the patient is likely to feel the most scared, helpless and embarrassed—they don't need that extra distress when someone explains to them that their particular situation has sent their provider into existential crisis.

In 2016, Illinois lawmakers established mitigating procedures for this, adjusting the state's existing rules so that transfers between medical personnel can proceed as seamlessly as possible. An ACLU of Illinois official told me that that he foresaw minimal disruption to the state's service-delivery from the new federal rule.

But that begs the questions: How did Illinois end up with these rules in the first place? Why is it so important to backwards-engineer service-delivery models in this manner? These are matters that health personnel need to take up with their professional mentors, religious advisors or therapists; their patients and colleagues need to be spared from this disruption.

Lawmakers on both sides of the spectrum have, at times, voted for laws that have privileged or otherwise acknowledged the perceived religious values of their constituency. Perhaps the issues seemed innocuous, or were meant to control for potential political damage from particular legislation.

However, even lawmakers for whom such votes are performative, and who know that their trying to control for particular religious expressions is disingenuous, have even inadvertently helped their right-wing colleagues. "Conscience-based" legislation legitimatizes fundamentalism as a valid political concern for the government; all it takes is someone like Trump to fan the flames by using these laws to political advantage as the basis for oppressive executive orders.

Trump's new rule will come into play in the next few months, and we'll no doubt see court challenges arise. We hope lawmakers, advocates and service providers will carefully watch how these situations unfold, and use them as the opportunity to think about the complex relationship between medicine, religion and government.

Matt Simonette is managing editor of Windy City Times.


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