SF Files Suit against HHS “Conscience” Rule as UCSF Nixes Affiliation with Catholic Group

The city of San Francisco filed suit against the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after it implemented a new policy requiring that healthcare professionals be allowed to refuse to provide contraception or abortion care or referral for either. The agency’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) also rewrote its mission and vision statement to place heavy emphasis on its law enforcement role as related to “conscience and religious freedom” in healthcare. Further, all entities receiving HHS grants will be required to document their compliance with the rule or risk losing funding.

The chairmen of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Activities and Religious Liberty Committees jointly commended HHS for the move, calling for “swift action” against violators and pushing for legislation to codify the rule.

San Francisco immediately filed suit against HHS on the basis that the rule increases rather than decreases discrimination and places a practitioner’s religious beliefs above the health and safety of patients. The lawsuit describes the new policy as “a perversion of OCR’s mission, it is unlawful, and San Francisco will not abide it.”

The suit came amid controversy over the University of California San Francisco’s (UCSF) plans to affiliate with Dignity Health, following the merger of Dignity Health and Catholic Health Initiatives. Critics argued that the bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) for Catholic facilities would land UCSF providers in a tangle of ethical quandaries. Moreover, as a public institution, UCSF faced legal questions as to whether such an affiliation violates the California constitution, which dictates that “the university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence,” prohibits public support of Catholic hospitals and bars the kinds of discrimination detailed in pending lawsuits against Dignity. UCSF posted a FAQ about its plans, assuring readers that the affiliation would not impact services for women or LGBTQ patients. After faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the University of California’s Board of Regents, “expressed strong concerns about a significantly expanded UCSF relationship with a health care system that has certain limits on women’s reproductive services, LGBTQ care, and end-of-life options,” however, the chancellor announced that would no longer pursue the affiliation.

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