JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Laws allowing health care workers to refuse to participate in an abortion have been on the books for decades.
Missouri legislators, however, dont think they go far enough.
They want to expand those laws to allow medical professionals to opt out of providing birth control, sterilization and assisted reproduction services and stem cell research. They would also be able to deny referrals for care.
Under legislation that could come up for a vote in the Missouri House as early as today, health care providers would be shielded from punishment for refusing to provide this type of care if it violates their religious or moral principles.
This bill provides workers with a shield to allow them to exercise their religious beliefs, which are sacrosanct in both our state and federal constitution, said House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican sponsoring the measure.
The proposal alarms critics, who denounce it as a potentially deadly change to health care policy. The bill is too broad, they complain, and sacrifices the health of women to the religious beliefs of medical providers.
Medicine is not supposed to be about the values of the physician or the institution, said Ed Weisbart, a family physician from St. Louis. Its supposed to be about the values of the patient. Period.
Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Courts 1973 decision legalizing abortion, state governments around the country began enacting laws to allow health care workers and the institutions they work for to refuse to provide abortions without facing legal, financial or professional consequences.
According to the reproductive health research organization the Guttmacher Institute, 46 states including Missouri and Kansas allow health care providers to refuse to provide abortion services. Thirteen states take it a step further and allow refusal of services related to contraception, and 18 extend it to sterilization services.
Last year, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law a bill allowing pharmacists to refuse to provide drugs they believe might cause an abortion.
The Missouri legislation would prevent a health care worker or institution that refuses to participate in procedures from being punished.
The right to refuse care would not apply to medical emergencies, Jones said. Employees would have to provide reasonable notice to their employers of their moral objections before refusing to participate in procedures or counseling they find offensive.
An employee cannot use the surprise tactic and suddenly wake up one day and proclaim a moral objection, Jones said.
But Daniel Landon, a lobbyist for the Missouri Hospital Association, questioned what reasonable notice in such situations might be.
It is unclear how a hospital human resources department would know whether that applies to one of their employees without diving into their private religious life in ways that many of us would be uncomfortable with, Landon said.
Health care institutions have a duty to ensure that patients receive accurate information and appropriate care, said Michelle Trupiano, public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
Failure to provide that care jeopardizes patient health, she said, even in situations that may not initially be considered life-threatening.
A woman with an ectopic pregnancy that isnt considered life-threatening could be denied care, including a referral as to where to receive care, until she comes back so sick that her life is in danger, Trupiano said.