Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
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The Impact of the ACA 1557 Final Regulations on Pregnancy and Abortion

Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability, or any combination thereof, in a health program or activity, any part of which is receiving federal financial assistance. On May 6, 2024, the US Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued final regulations under Section 1557. For an overview of these regulations, please see our post available here.

In a recent post, we reported that the final regulations unambiguously prohibit categorical coverage exclusions or limitations for health services related to gender transition or other gender-affirming care. This, we predicted, is likely to result in a showdown involving the two dozen or so state laws that, among other things, limit gender-affirming care access. In this post, we take up the final regulations’ treatment of pregnancy and abortion. While a similar showdown over abortion is possible, it is (for the reasons set out below) less likely.

Rather than establish protected characteristics, Section 1557 instead cross-references four other civil rights statutes to define what discrimination is prohibited. These include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Notably, three of the cross-references (including Title IX) also contain the abbreviation “et seq.,” which captures the balance of the provisions constituting a given law.

An ongoing source of friction involving ACA Section 1557 is the cross-reference to the “religious exemption” in Title IX. This exemption permits conduct by a religiously controlled educational institution that might otherwise violate the statute’s requirements when the institution acts for a religious reason and compliance with the statute would conflict with a religious tenet. A subsequent amendment clarified that Title IX must be construed to neither require nor prohibit any person or entity to provide abortion-related benefits or services. This is referred to as “abortion neutrality.” The final regulations do not incorporate Title IX’s religious exemption or its abortion neutrality provision.

The final regulations define discrimination “on the basis of sex” to include pregnancy or related conditions. How this squares with abortion is addressed at some length in the preamble and the regulation itself:

  • The decision not to import the Title IX religious exception does not compel any individual provider or covered entity with religious- or conscience-based objections to provide abortion or any other care to the extent doing so would conflict with a sincerely held belief.
  • The ACA’s respect for federal laws applies. That law includes robust protections regarding conscience protection, willingness or refusal to provide abortion, and discrimination on the basis of the willingness or refusal “to provide, pay for, cover, or refer for abortion or to provide or participate in training to provide abortion.’’ In addition, “[i]nsofar as the application of any requirement under this part would violate applicable Federal protections for religious [...]

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Northern District of Texas Blocks Enforcement of the Non-Discrimination Regulations of the ACA

On December 31, 2016, the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued an opinion and order in Franciscan Alliance, Inc. et al v. Burwell, which preliminarily enjoins the US Department of Health and Human Services from enforcing, on a nationwide basis, certain portions of the regulations under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and termination of pregnancy. Two similar cases are pending in the US District Court for the District of North Dakota.

Read the full article here.

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