The United States District Court in New York City issued a thorough and forceful decision Wednesday striking down the Trump administration’s recently-adopted “conscience exemption” policy granting broad rights for anyone working in the health care industry to refuse reproductive health care to women, even in emergency situations when a woman’s life is in danger.
The policy, now struck down in its entirety, was due to go into effect on November 22. The Court’s 147-page decision came less than three weeks after oral arguments in the case.
“The court safeguarded the public’s health by striking down the Trump administration’s health care refusal rule,” Clare Coleman, President and CEO of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA), said in a statement yesterday. “This unlawful rule is an outright attack on the health and wellness of millions of people across the country, and the court heard clear and compelling arguments about the harm communities face when our health care system is distorted to the point in which a patient’s health care needs are not paramount.”
The suit was brought by 19 states, the District of Columbia and three local governments, as well as three health care providers—Planned Parenthood, NFPRHA and Public Health Solutions, Inc. The ACLU represented the plaintiffs and forty organizations filed briefs in the case.
The court determined that HHS exceeded its authority by enacting a broad healthcare refusal rule that created “new substantive rights” and imposed “new substantive duties” on the health care sector. For example, HHS expanded the application of healthcare refusal rights to people only tangentially related in providing health care procedures—such as receptionists who make appointments, elevator operators or ambulance drivers—who could refuse to do their jobs on moral or religious grounds, and thereby put patients’ health at risk. The rules could also require that employers hire extra employees to cover the tasks that employees refused to perform, particularly during emergencies.
The court explained that the broadly applicable rule set behavioral standards on two political hot-button issues, abortion and assisted suicide, but that Congress has not delegated this kind of legislative power to the administrative agency. They thusly found that the Trump administration illegally tried to usurp Congress’s lawmaking function, declaring that HHS’s legal violations were “numerous, fundamental and far-reaching” and that HHS made false claims in trying to justify the rule.
“The Trump administration has been blocked from providing legal cover for discrimination,” Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement. “As the federal district court made clear, the administration acted outside its authority and made false claims to try to justify this rule.”
The court also recognized that the rule’s new legal obligations would have imposed significant costs on health care providers, put in jeopardy billions of dollars in federal health care funds and endangered the health of patients. The rule “could have jeopardized the health of some of our most vulnerable populations,” explained Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association, “including women, LGBT people and people with HIV or AIDS.”
While likely to be appealed, the ruling provides a decisive victory for the plaintiffs.