Former Director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Roger Severino spoke at NC Family’s Charlotte and Winston-Salem Dinners this fall.
Severino currently serves as senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and he spoke at both dinners about his work at HHS in the Trump Administration. To watch the full video of Severino’s address, visit the 2021 Winston-Salem Dinner Event page.
This week on Family Policy Matters, we are featuring Part 1 of an excerpt from Severino’s address in Charlotte on October 5, 2021. Be sure to tune in next week for Part 2!
JOHN RUSTIN: This week on Family Policy Matters, we’re excited to bring you part one of a two part series focusing on the keynote address presented by Roger Severino at NC Family’s annual dinner event in Charlotte, North Carolina in October. Roger is currently a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. Prior to that, he served as the Director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within the Trump Administration. We hope you enjoy.
So my talk is going to be structured where I’m going to speak about the achievements we did; how they’ve been changed and rolled back with lightning speed; and what are some of the greater threats on the horizon, and of course, what we can do about it. Now, first, I want to say that NC Family is one such organization that can do something about it and has done tremendous work for years, working in the vineyard to help out. So keep in mind that there’ll be some dark moments, but there is still hope at the end of it.
So to start with some of the light moments. It was a beautiful day in March, right after the president was sworn in. It was at the White House Rose Garden, and that was the president’s talk announcing his executive order on religious freedom. In the crowd were the Little Sisters of the Poor, and I hope you’ve all heard their story. The president said, “We’re finally going to get the government foot off of your neck.” Because the government under Obama, through Obamacare, had imposed a contraceptive mandate, which Congress had never voted for. It went through the administrative process and it was imposed on all employers of a certain size that they must provide contraceptive coverage, including nuns for fellow nuns. So I don’t know how much you know about Catholic doctrine, but nuns generally don’t need contraceptives. But it didn’t matter what their religious beliefs were on the question. The government said, “You must comply regardless.” And in fact, they said they weren’t religious enough, in part because they served everyone and their mission was “serve the dying poor,” so they would not die alone—so they would know Christ’s love would be with them in their final moments. But the government said, “Well, cause you’re open up to other people, now you have to follow our rules.”
Well, the president was announcing that we were going to get rid of that burden on their religious freedom. We would stop hounding them and threatening literally to shut them down and assess millions of dollars in fines just to make a point. That was what the government was doing; they just wanted to make a point that there would be no exceptions because they wanted this to be universal. That is a bureaucratic mindset that I encountered time and time again when I worked at HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. I was in the bowels of the beast, and it’s something that came up in other things that the president rolled back. The Mexico city policy: this was designed by bureaucrats to fund overseas advocacy for abortion as a method of family planning. That was undone very early.
Title X: the funding of contraceptives for low-income persons. We issued a rule that would make sure it was not being used to subsidize abortion clinics and their overhead. Now the American people have all sorts of views on the abortion question. It is generally pro-life, especially among the young, but wherever there is profound agreement, it’s on this: you don’t force people to perform or assistant abortions, and you don’t force people to have insurance coverage for abortion. If some people do it, well, they’re going to do it. But don’t force others to participate; that has wide majorities of Americans that support that concept. So you don’t fund Planned Parenthood when you’re trying to do family planning projects. Well, of course, the Obama Administration was, and we said something very simple. “Planned Parenthood, you say that abortion is a mere teensy-weensy bit of your activities.” (They say it’s 3%.) “Well, you have a choice: separate that 3% from your family planning activities, financially and physically, and don’t refer people who come in to abortions, because that’s barred by federal law.” They refused and they dropped out of the program, and that was because of the rule we put in place.
We also ended the practice of secret abortion billing. Under Obamacare, unfortunately, one of the compromises that led to it coming into play were a few people—a couple holdouts, they were Democrats at the time—said, “Well, the best we can do to protect life is at least have separate billing.” So if somebody has abortion as part of their coverage, they get a separate bill in the mail; they pay for it separately. So we have that separation between federally-funded programs and not. Well under Obama, that requirement was gone. It could have been buried in plan documents, so people wouldn’t know that they were funding their own kid’s abortions. Because under Obamacare, it’s up to 25 years of age. You can have a daughter in college having abortions under your plan, and the parents paying for it and not ever even knowing that they were paying for it.
So we were rolling things back, rolling things back, and we’re also doing some things on this question of gender identity. Doctors under Obamacare were being required to perform sex reassignment surgeries, regardless of their best medical judgment and regardless of any religious objections they would have, and this would apply even to minors. So long as you had a psychologist issue a doctor’s note saying that it is medically indicated for this person to have this surgery—or this teenager to have puberty blockers, et cetera—you as a doctor would have to do it. If you could do a hysterectomy because that’s part of your practice to cure cancer, you’d have to do a hysterectomy even if there’s no disease tissue whatsoever, if somebody has a gender identity issue. We ended that. We said that sex is male and female, biologically, binary, based on genetics. This caused an incredible uproar, but it was the right thing to do.
Of course, we had strong religious liberty protections in place as well. And on the positive side, we didn’t just roll back things. I had the pleasure of launching a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, staffed with career professionals, to do something that’s rather common sense: we have civil rights laws; they have to be enforced. We do it with every other civil, right? We do it on race, sex, national origin, disability, age, color, but we don’t do it for religious freedom and religious discrimination. So this is one lesson: if the bureaucracy is already there, let’s at least turn the bureaucracy to good ends. We launched this division, tremendous fanfare, the complaints started rolling in, and we had a case of a nurse who was called by her hospital one weekend to assist with what she thought was the after-effects of a miscarriage. She had told her bosses at the University of Vermont Medical Center that she could not in good faith assist in an abortion, that was contrary to her religious beliefs. She entered the practice of medicine to save lives, not end them. And they had respected her beliefs for a time. But on this one particular weekend, they called her in under false pretenses. And then the doctor turned to her and said, “Please don’t hate me,” because it was clear, this was not a miscarriage; this was an abortion of a living child. And she raised her objections and said, “Well, you know, I can’t do this.” But they said, “You’re the only nurse here. You can’t abandon your patient. This is your obligation.” Her job was on the line. Her license to practice medicine was on the line. So faced with this horrible pressure, she gave in, and has been scarred ever since. And she turned to us at the Conscious Division at the Office for Civil Rights at HHS seeking help. We issued a notice of violation then that this was a clear violation of the law. It is as clear as it gets. We issued a referral to DOJ [Department of Justice], which then filed a lawsuit so that they would not receive federal funds and they had to shape up.
We provided that help, and that’s just one example of the things we were doing. We went after the State of California for forcing near universal abortion insurance coverage. We issued our notice of violation and followed it up with cutting $200 million in Medicaid funds to California for violating the long-standing federal laws. We went after California again in the NIFLA v. Becerra case for going after pregnancy resource centers, because those pregnancy resource centers would not refer for abortions. Think about that: the State of California was requiring pro-life resource centers to tell the women they’re helping where to get abortions for free. They were threatened with being shut down if they wouldn’t speak those words. That is a form of totalitarianism; that’s what the Supreme Court said. We issued our notice of violation as well, the Supreme court also issued a ruling enjoining it.
I’m proud of what we did in the Trump Administration. It took tremendous effort. It was not easy. It was a fight on the outside, enemies on all sides; there were opponents on the inside that were trying to block what we were doing. But we were doing the right thing and we stuck it through, and I look back with pride. We left it all on the table and we did everything we could for life and religious freedom.
That was then, unfortunately. Where are we now? Mexico City Policy: reversed. Separate billing and hidden abortion bills: reversed. Title X financial and physical separation so we don’t fund the overhead of Planned Parenthood anymore, and the forced referrals: reversed Monday [October 4]. We had the nurse in the Vermont case forced to assist in an abortion: the lawsuit was dropped by the U.S. Department of Justice. She has been absolutely abandoned. Xavier Becerra, he was the Attorney General of California when we cut the $200 million in Medicaid funds—he was the Becerra in NIFLA v. Becerra. He’s now in charge of the Medicaid fund. He is the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. He was my main antagonist when I was at HHS enforcing the laws against him. Now he’s running HHS. The $200 million penalty is gone; it was revoked as well. Now we had a Supreme Court decision on NIFLA v. Becerra, so unless he’s going to defy the Supreme Court? We’ll see what happens there. But every single step, he’s been pushing hard to undo all the good we did for life and religious freedom.
On the transgender mandate, we issued regulations to affirm human sexuality as one person, one sex for male, one sex for female, based on the science. By an act of fiat, through a press release, they said they’re going to ignore that regulation and going to start enforcing those same rules that had already been struck down by a District Court and undone by our efforts. Stroke of a pen, we’re not enforcing it. That is a form of lawlessness. We followed the rules. And a little bit about the administrative process, where you all can get involved and I encourage you all to get involved is in the rulemaking process. We issued a conscience rule; we issued the Title X rule; we issued the separate billing rule; we issued the rollback of the transgender mandate through rules. They have the force and effect of laws. We are governed in your daily activities by rules. The vaccine mandate that the president has announced he’s going to do wasn’t passed by Congress. It’s going to come through OSHA— Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Safety and Health. Where in the statutedoes it say they have the power to impose a nationwide mandate? But they’re going to do it through rules, which means you have an opportunity to comment on the rulemaking process. Members of the public need to get involved. Regulations.gov is the website where you track these regulations coming through. Anybody and everybody should submit comments. By law, the agencies are required to consider the comments. If you don’t raise an argument, an objection in particular, they don’t have to answer it and you lose your opportunity to raise it later; it’s use it or lose it.
– END PART ONE –