A new law in Montana, dubbed Medical Conscience Objection Laws, will provide sweeping protections for medical professionals who do not want to participate in or provide some types of medical care due to conscience.
The law, which goes into effect in October, will gut patients’ ability to take legal action if they believe they didn’t receive proper care due to a conscientious objection by a provider or an institution, such as a hospital.
So-called medical conscience objection laws have existed at the state and federal levels for years, with most protecting providers who refuse to perform an abortion or sterilization procedure. But the new Montana law, and others like it that have passed or been introduced in statehouses across the U.S., goes further, to the point of undermining patient care and threatening the right of people to receive lifesaving and essential care, according to critics.
Not everyone is happy about providers refusing services due to personal beliefs, however.
“I tend to call them ‘medical refusal bills,'” said Liz Reiner Platt, the director of Columbia Law School’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project. “Patients are being denied the standard of care, being denied adequate medical care, because objections to certain routine medical practices are being prioritized over patient health.”
In this past legislative season, 21 bills were introduced in state legislatures but only two became law.
Florida lawmakers passed legislation that allows providers and insurers to refuse any health service that violates ethical beliefs. Montana’s law goes further, prohibiting the assignment of health workers to provide, facilitate, or refer patients for abortions unless the providers have consented in writing. South Carolina, Ohio, and Arkansas previously passed bills.
The bill that passed in Montana is wide ranging, protecting practitioners, institutions, and insurers for just about any medical service one can think of. The exception is the emergency room, which is covered by federal law and supersedes state laws. Arguments that these types of conscience laws discriminate against patients ignores the realty that most professionals who render a service are free to pick their own clients and stores generally are free to refuse customers as long as denials are not based on race or a protected class.
But the wave of medical conscience bills introduced in statehouses since that article was published go beyond abortion to include contraception, sterilization, gender-affirming care, and other services. Opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, and the Human Rights Campaign have been vocal opponents of this trend, criticizing it as a backdoor way to restrict the rights of women, LGBTQ+ community members, and other individuals.
Social conservatives are blamed for perpetuation these protections.
Most of these conscience laws are part of an “arsenal” to further social conservatism, and they are often religiously motivated, said Lori Freedman, a researcher and associate professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California-San Francisco.
While experts warn of the potential patient health consequences of these medical conscience bills, academics say placing a provider’s choice over their patient’s rights is itself a threat.
Overall, I suspect the people who worry about provider protections are making much ado about nothing. There may be some pharmacists or physicians who don’t want to provide abortions or dispense birth control, but I doubt it will come to the point where you have to choose which pharmacy you patronize based on where your (and their) beliefs fall.