Former HHS Official Roger Severino: Arkansas’ Conscience-Rights Measure Is ‘Just the Beginning’

‘Whatever one thinks of the legality of abortion or irreversible sterilizing surgeries on minors, most Americans just don’t believe doctors should be forced to participate in them.’

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson removes his mask before a briefing at the state capitol in Little Rock on July 20, 2020.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson removes his mask before a briefing at the state capitol in Little Rock on July 20, 2020. (photo: Staci Vandagriff / Associated Press)

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a conscience rights measure into law Friday that would allow doctors to decline to perform non-emergency procedures that they have conscience-based objections against. The new Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, which takes effect in August, also states that a health care institution, medical provider, or healthcare payer with a “religious purpose or mission,” such as a Catholic hospital, has “the right to make employment, staffing, contracting, and admitting privilege decisions consistent with his, her, or its religious beliefs.” 

Roger Severino, the former head of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights who founded its Conscience and Religious Freedom Division during his time there, discussed the law via email with the Register Tuesday. Severino, who is currently a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sees the move as the beginning of an effort to protect the conscience rights of medical professionals and religious institutions, as the Biden administration increasingly generates concerns by advocating for measures like the Equality Act and appointing officials with poor records on conscience rights. 


What does the measure in Arkansas do and why is it necessary? 

The MED Act protects doctors who believe in the Hippocratic Oath from being driven out of medicine because they decline to perform abortions or to remove healthy reproductive organs in minors as young as 12 or 13, which is where things are headed.

Cancel culture is quickly replacing both science and conscience with ideology in every field and medicine is no exception. That’s why this law is so important, Americans in Arkansas and elsewhere are finally taking a stand to restore tolerance and common sense.


How does it compare to the conscience rights enforcement efforts of existing law at HHS during your time there? 

Arkansas’ law parallels several federal protections for conscience that had been in place for decades but were rarely enforced until I formed the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at HHS in 2018. Unfortunately, President Biden, HHS Secretary Becerra, and HHS Assistant Secretary Levine have shown nothing but hostility to conscience and must be stopped from rolling back these vital and popular federal protections.

Whatever one thinks of the legality of abortion or irreversible sterilizing surgeries on minors, most Americans just don’t believe doctors should be forced to participate in them.


What do you think of critics’ objections that the measure is too broad and could lead to widespread denial of care?

They need to read the law. First, the law improves access to care by preventing doctors from being fired unjustly and religiously-affiliated hospitals from closing. Second, anyone needing emergency medical care is entitled to receive it exactly as before. Third, it protects conscience related to procedures only, not on how people identify or appear. And finally, existing civil rights laws are not weakened by this bill but enhanced.


Could this approach be a template for other states as concerns mount over what to expect from the federal government on the issue? 

Absolutely. This law will provide relief to victims we worked so hard to protect at the federal level and states need to fill the gap for however long Biden is in office.


Have there been similar efforts in other states?

Yes, I believe this is just the beginning. Conscience is so easy for people to understand because everyone has been pressured to do the wrong thing at some point in their lives and know how that feels. Except for highly ideological people, most think people shouldn’t be fired for declining to assist in the taking of a life through abortion.


What legal challenges might the Arkansas measure face?

The left is quite well funded and organized. We should expect lawsuits very quickly, but given Trump’s appointment of many constitutionalist judges, there is a good chance Arkansas will be vindicated.


What other steps might be taken at the state level, to protect medical conscience rights from the threats that are now emerging?

States that still don’t have Religious Freedom Restoration Acts should pass them. It’s a shame that they are not present in all 50 states because they simply put the burden on government to justify when they impose on religious exercise. You would be amazed by how many cases I’ve seen where governments harm religious practice for no good reason, even leaving aside anti-religious bigotry.


What can faithful Catholics and others who support conscience rights do, to help secure more protections in this area?

Get informed, spread the word, pray fervently.

a young parishioner prays inside St. Thomas Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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