Trump's conservative agenda at HHS stalled by department's office of general counsel: sources

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A struggle has developed within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) whereby President Trump's abortion and conscience-related agendas encountered roadblocks from the Office of General Counsel (OGC), multiple sources allege.

"President Trump got more pro-life and religious liberty wins than other Republican presidents, and I was honored to fight on his team," a former administration official told Fox News. "But we could have done even more if swampy Republican appointees weren't constantly pushing back."

That former official was one of three who told Fox News that OGC had stalled the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which has served as a conduit for controversial measures surrounding gender, sexuality, and abortion. And despite making several strides on conservative issues, other major initiatives under OCR's purview appeared to be unresolved.

March for Life Action President Tom McClusky previously warned about OGC's influence, noting in August that the OGC attorney overseeing OCR, Aaron Schuham, was the former legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS).

Schuham has served as an attorney at HHS since 2015, under former President Obama's administration. Before that, he worked in the civil rights division of Obama's Justice Department and as a trial attorney at DOJ from 1997-2003, according to a bio online.

His and his deputy's former employer, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, are both liberal entities that have opposed abortion restrictions. On its website, the AUSCS specifically criticizes Trump's move to exempt religious entities from the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.

Schuham did not immediately respond to Fox News' request for comment. 

"President Trump took relentless and robust action to prioritize religious liberty and conscience protection," said one former official who was familiar with the issue. "OCR [Office of Civil Rights] was tasked with carrying out those protections in a number of areas. It would be inexplicable if the department's general counsel sought to stymie that important and explicit agenda."


The revelation came as Trump's first term was wrapping up and President-elect Biden prepared to nominate an HHS secretary — California Attorney General Xavier Becerra – who has publicly opposed several of OCR's efforts. That included conscience protections for medical workers that held beliefs which would prohibit them from participating in abortions.  

Congress also urged HHS in 2017 to probe potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) by Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), although no action has been made public on that.

Those concerns came after Holly O'Donnell, a former tissue procurement technician with Stem Express, accused Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and her former employer of breaching patients' privacy. In a follow-up interview, O'Donnell told pro-life journalist David Daleiden that Stem Express employees coordinated closely with PPFA to fill what she likened to a "grocery list" of fetal body parts. 

"We'd go to the head nurse, let the nurses know that 'hey this is what I'm looking for today,'" she said. "They'd give you a sheet of the appointments, which women were coming in, and it would tell you how many patients, what time they were coming in, their name, and if they knew how far along they were," O'Donnell added that she would track patients in order to obtain needed body parts.

Management, she said, heavily pressured employees and incentivized them to obtain fetal organs, which internal documents also showed with dollar amounts assigned to them. O'Donnell, who worked with a PPFA affiliate in California, also alleged that Stem Express would collect fetal tissue without a patient's consent. Both Stem Express and PPFA denied O'Donnell's allegations in 2015.


Trump's administration has managed, however, to pass several initiatives that enraged Democrats. HHS has, among other things, placed restrictions on the use of fetal tissue in federally-funded research, effectively severed Title X funding from Planned Parenthood, and announced conscience protections for medical workers who opposed abortion and other procedures. 

As early as 2017, the president prioritized religious liberty and conscience protections in an executive order that affected multiple departments. 

Last week, HHS announced long-awaited actions on two alleged civil rights violations, including one in which a nurse was allegedly forced to assist with an abortion. That complaint was filed in May of 2018. Another disallowed federal money from flowing to California's Medicaid program after the state forced insurers to cover abortions. The department had notified Becerra of the violation in January and given him 30 days to correct the problem. California continued, however, and HHS' disallowal didn't come till last week.

The White House and HHS did not respond to Fox News' requests for comment. 

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