Doctors can now legally choose not to treat women who've had abortions, thanks to a federal court decision.
The December 31 ruling would enable doctors to discriminate against patients on the basis of gender identity (including being transgender) or "termination of pregnancy." US District Court judge Reed O'Connor ruled that a federal regulation, which required doctors to treat people regardless of gender identity or abortion history, infringed on their religious freedoms. Doctors, he declared, should not be forced to partake in what they see as "impermissible material cooperation with evil."
The Department of Health and Human Services intended to enforce the nondiscrimination rule starting January 1. But Texas, several other states, and a handful of religiously affiliated medical groups sued to stop it. The plaintiffs argued that the regulation would force doctors to perform procedures, like gender transition surgery or abortions, "even when they are contrary to a doctor's medical judgment."
Judge O'Connor concurred, ruling that requiring doctors to provide gender transition surgery or abortions infringes on their freedom of religion. The only problem is, the rule doesn't actually require doctors to perform these procedures. The rule says simply:
[A]n individual shall not … be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under, any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance.
In fact, O'Connor even cited the defendants as saying that the rule will not force anyone to perform or ensure a certain procedure. Instead, it prohibits doctors and insurance companies from "operating in a discriminatory manner, both in design and implementation."
Even if the regulation did require doctors to provide abortions, some women's rights groups believe it's for the best.
Low-income women and women in rural areas often have limited access to doctors and hospitals. In a 2015 letter to the Obama administration, the Center for Reproductive Rights argued that finding an abortion provider without a religious objection could ultimately prevent women from receiving care:
Experience shows that religious exemptions in the field of health care deprive women of access to critical health care in general, and reproductive health services in particular. These services, including access to safe pregnancy termination, miscarriage management, and contraception, are necessary to ensure women’s health and wellbeing.
The Obama administration has yet to comment on what it will do next to protect those services.