(Adds quotes from HHS official)
WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. government is seeking to further protect the "conscience and religious freedom" of health workers whose beliefs prevent them from carrying out abortions and other procedures, in an effort likely to please conservative Christian activists and other supporters of President Donald Trump.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday it will create a division within its Office of Civil Rights to give it "the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom."
Healthcare workers, hospitals with religious affiliations, and medical students among others have been "bullied" by the federal government to provide these services despite existing laws on religious and conscience rights, the top HHS official said.
"The federal government has hounded religious hospitals...forcing them to provide services that violate their consciences," Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan said. "Medical students too have learned to do procedures that violate their consciences."
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 seeking to transition, or perform other procedures because of moral or religious grounds.
The move is likely to upset reproductive rights advocates and some Democrats.
The division would enforce the legal 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.
The creation of the division is in accordance with an executive order signed by Trump last May called "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty." The order was followed by new rules aimed at removing a legal mandate that health insurance provide contraception. (Additional reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Alistair Bell)