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Put Patients First: Eliminate the Weldon Amendment

A health care provider’s religious beliefs should never determine the care a patient receives. Yet religious exemption laws – like the federal Weldon Amendment – allow health care providers like hospitals, doctors, nurses, and health insurance companies, to do just that – refuse to treat a woman seeking an abortion because of religious or moral beliefs. These laws allow religious beliefs to override a patient’s health needs and put women’s lives and health at risk, which is why voters are more likely to support an elected official who opposes religious exemption laws.

The Weldon Amendment Allows Religious Beliefs to Override a Patient’s Health Needs

The Weldon Amendment is a federal law that has been attached to the annual federal spending bill for labor, health and human services, and education programs since 2005.  It allows health care entities – including hospitals, health insurance plans, individual doctors and nurses – to refuse to provide abortion, cover abortion, pay for abortion, or refer for abortion.  There are no provisions in the law to protect patient access to abortion services. If a state or local government wants to do something to protect women’s access to abortion, like pass a law requiring hospitals to provide referrals to women who need an abortion, the Weldon Amendment could be used to threaten the state with losing millions of dollars of federal funding. A patient’s health should always come first but the Weldon Amendment allows a provider’s religious beliefs to override a patient’s health needs.

The Weldon Amendment Endangers Women’s Health and Lives

Religious exemption laws like the Weldon Amendment put women’s lives and health in danger. Because of religion, some hospitals have turned away women seeking abortion or information about abortion, even when the woman’s life is in jeopardy. In some instances, hospitals have refused to treat a woman whose miscarriage is threatening her life. These practices put religious beliefs over patients’ needs and they can – and have – resulted in infertility, infection, and even death.

  • A patient in an urban northeastern Catholic hospital experiencing a miscarriage nearly died because of the hospital’s refusal to treat her. The patient’s physician recalled that the “woman [wa]s dying before our eyes.”
  • A woman experiencing pregnancy loss was denied care for 10 days at a Catholic hospital outside Chicago, Illinois. She had a fever of 106 degrees and was dying of sepsis when she was transferred to a hospital that would treat her. The treating physician said the woman suffered “an acute kidney injury requiring dialysis and a cognitive injury due to the severity of her sepsis,” spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, and then had to be transferred to a long-term care facility.
  • A patient hemorrhaging due to pregnancy complications went to the emergency room of a Catholic hospital in a western urban area. The emergency room physician would not provide the care she needed, even though the patient was actively bleeding and unstable. Ultimately, at great risk to her health, the patient was transferred in an unstable condition to another facility that was willing to perform the medical procedure she needed.

The harms created by religious exemption laws have a disproportionate impact on those individuals – including women of color and low-income women – who face increased barriers to accessing abortion.

Voters Oppose Religious Exemption Laws Like the Weldon Amendment

A March 2017 nationally representative survey conducted on behalf of the National Women’s Law Center shows that sixty-one percent of voters oppose religious exemption laws.

In addition:

  • Sixty-three percent of voters oppose laws that allow hospitals to refuse to provide a woman with information or referrals about abortion because of religious or moral beliefs.
  • Sixty-two percent of voters oppose laws that allow insurance companies to refuse to cover a woman’s abortion because of religious or moral beliefs.
  • Sixty-two percent of voters oppose laws that allow doctors or nurses to refuse to provide a woman with information or referrals about abortion because of religious or moral beliefs .

The survey also showed that voters are willing to hold federal elected officials accountable and are more likely to support officials for opposing religious exemption laws.

A patient’s health needs and individual circumstances should drive medical decisions, not a provider’s religious beliefs.  Rather than passing laws that allow religious beliefs to dictate patient care, elected officials should be focused on ensuring that women receive the care that they need, including abortion. Safe, legal abortion is not only the law of the land, it is essential for women’s health and well-being and it is time to eliminate the Weldon Amendment.