(Reuters) - The U.S. government will create a division within its health agency that focuses on guaranteeing "conscience and religious freedom" for health workers who say their beliefs prevent them from carrying out abortions and other procedures.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement on Thursday that the creation of the new division in its Office of Civil Rights would give it "the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom."
The effort is likely to please conservative Christian activists, many of whom voted for President Donald Trump, and congressional Republicans but upset reproductive rights advocates and Democrats.
Politico reported on Wednesday that the department is aiming to give protections for workers who do not want to provide abortions, care for transgender patients, or perform other procedures because of moral or religious grounds.
The division would enforce that protection and conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers with religious or moral objections to opt out.
Trump last May signed an executive order called "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty", which was followed by new rules aimed at removing a legal mandate that health insurance provide contraception. The creation of the division is in accordance with that order, according to HHS documents.
(Reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Alistair Bell)