Politics & Government

HHS official to abortion opponents: ‘We’re just getting started’

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, at the office of Health and Human Services in Washington earlier this year.
Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, at the office of Health and Human Services in Washington earlier this year. AP

For the first time in recent memory, an official from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spoke at a conference of the nation’s largest anti-abortion organization.

“Our president is fearless when it comes to life and conscience,” said Roger Severino, who directs the Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights. “We’re just getting started.”

Severino was a featured speaker at the National Right to Life convention Thursday in Overland Park.

A former Justice Department lawyer who has also worked for the Heritage Foundation, Severino told abortion opponents the story of a Catholic nurse who was coerced into assisting with an abortion against her beliefs.

“It happened in America and it should never happen again,” Severino said. “This administration is dedicated to making sure it never happens again.”

The Department of Health and Human Services drew both praise and criticism in January when the Trump Administration created a new conscience and religious freedom division of the office of civil rights and proposed regulations to protect health care workers who don’t want to perform abortions or other services because of their religious or moral beliefs.

The department’s strategic plan also now includes language that says, “A core component of the HHS mission is the dedication to serve all Americans from conception to natural death.”

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee,said she couldn’t remember another HHS official speaking to the convention. If it has happened, it would have been in the 1980s. Severino’s message was an encouragement, she said.

“The leadership at HHS is very committed to protecting unborn children,” Tobias said. “Their willingness to send a representative to talk about conscience protection and to reassure pro-life people that they’re going to work to protect the babies, it was just a nice, very uplifting, very encouraging good message from the administration.”

Even though an HHS official may not have spoken to the largest organization of abortion opponents before, it doesn’t come as a surprise under the Trump administration, said Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, which offers abortion services in Kansas and Oklahoma.

“I can tell you it’s disappointing that you would have a government official going to address an anti-choice gathering like this,” Burkhart said. “It’s rather chilling to hear a government official say ‘We’re just getting started’ when the actions and stated coming actions and projects from the White House are ones of repressing people in this country when it comes to their civil rights.”

Thursday night, Severino said conscience protection is important because it keeps the peace and allows people of faith to serve others while protecting their beliefs.

Severino praised the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s executive order in May about freedom of speech and Jeff Sessions’ guidance on religious liberty to federal agencies.

He also spoke of the Little Sisters of the Poor, two of whom were in the audience, and how they challenged the federal contraceptive mandate.

The Little Sisters’ care for the elderly “was put at stake because government said, ‘Our way or you’re out of business,’” Severino said. “We’re proud to say that is no longer the case. We have restored religious liberty when it comes to the contraceptive mandate.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @kathsburgess.

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