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New Rule Allows Religious Workers To Refuse Abortion Services


We want to look more closely now at what this ruling means for women who may need abortions. We're joined by Mary Ziegler. She's a law professor at Florida State University and author of the book "Beyond Abortion: Roe v. Wade And The Fight For Privacy." Welcome to the program.

MARY ZIEGLER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: When it comes to abortion services, who will be impacted the most by this new ruling?

ZIEGLER: It's hard to say, but I think primarily women who are in smaller communities that rely on one or two providers for their care - those people are often going to be in a position, for example, to not have alternatives if a Catholic institution or another religious institution turn them down.

CORNISH: If a person is refused treatment, can you talk about some of the other options?

ZIEGLER: Well, it really depends on the community you're in. So, as is often the case with abortion care, women who are poorer or in rural communities, for example, are going to have a harder time seeking an alternative without it becoming prohibitively inconvenient in terms of either a commute or the cost of money involved in getting a hotel, whereas women in bigger areas are likely - more urban areas, that is - are much more likely to have a variety of options for their care and be able to look elsewhere if a religious institution refuses their request.

CORNISH: Some abortion rights advocates say personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, shouldn't determine the health care a patient receives. The National Women's Law Center, for one, says that they're going to fight this. Are there grounds for a lawsuit?

ZIEGLER: There certainly are grounds for a lawsuit. Obviously, as a starting point, we're dealing with a Supreme Court that's been remade by both Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, so I think any - we're talking now realistically - right? - about a court that is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade in substance, if not in name. So a challenge here, I think, would be a longshot.

And if we're talking about burdens on abortion per se, there's what you might see kind of as a circuit breaker here - that is to say, there are private individuals who are denying care. It's not just the government. And in the past, the Supreme Court has been less receptive to constitutional arguments about abortion when the government isn't the only one to blame for women's lack of access. So it might be kind of a longshot for a variety of reasons.

CORNISH: To that point, I think some people would ask - look, if a person has a deep moral objection to abortion, is there really a better solution than just letting them opt out, right? Like, should they have to participate in something that goes against their beliefs?

ZIEGLER: Yeah. I think the controversy with the Trump-era regulations - and really, where we've been with the controversy about conscience since the George W. Bush era - in part is, how directly involved do you need to be before we worry about your conscientious objections? So going way back to the 1970s, we've always cared about conscientious objections, but over time, you see religious conservatives pressing a kind of broader and broader definition of complicity or involvement.

And so, for example, if you look at the Trump regulations, they say that if you're scheduling an abortion or you're preparing a room for an abortion, that that would be considered something that you could object to instead of just actually performing an abortion. So I think the challenge is to strike the right balance between access to care on the one hand and protection of religious objections on the other. And clearly, the Trump administration is expanding religious protections pretty dramatically and, obviously, at the expense of access to care.

CORNISH: You know, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Civil Rights - they have a new division - right? - of Conscience and Religious Freedom. So, in a way, could people see this coming?

ZIEGLER: Yeah, absolutely. I think that religious freedom has been one of the Trump administration's kind of signature initiatives in terms of solidifying his support among certainly conservative evangelicals and other believers who've been one of his sort of main constituencies. They're among his strongest supporters, even when his poll numbers have generally been low.

CORNISH: That's Mary Ziegler of Florida State University. Thank you for speaking with us.

ZIEGLER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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