The Labor HHS Funding Bill Could Open the Door Wider to Religious Beliefs Dictating Patient Access to Care

Last week, the Labor-HHS committee released a draft funding bill for fiscal year 2018-2019 containing a section that would give health care institutions and insurance providers an even broader ability to use personal beliefs to deny patients the health care they need.
We have seen this before. In 2016, a standalone version of this bill was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but did not make it through the Senate. Now House Members are trying again, this time embedding it in a larger funding proposal, perhaps intending to get it through unnoticed among all the other awful things in the bill.
This provision allows more entities to refuse to help women seeking abortions
This section of the funding bill emboldens a wide range of entities – including insurance companies, hospitals, universities, employers, and individual doctors and nurses – to refuse to provide care, referrals, and even simply information to patients seeking abortion.
Additionally, the bill creates a private right of action, meaning that for the first time health care entities could go to court to try and sue their state government, for example, for requiring those providers to give patients care.
Refusals to provide abortion services harm women
Health care refusals, and laws like this one that protect refusers, put religious beliefs over patient need, threatening patients with real harm. Refusals to provide abortion services in particular can – and do – result in infertility, infection, and even death.  For example:

  • A patient in Illinois was bleeding heavily from a pregnancy complication and was turned away from two emergency rooms. One of those hospitals turned her away even though she was bleeding so heavily that the hospital “gave her a blood transfusion before sending her home.” Before they were able to find a hospital that would provide an abortion, the patient and her partner “just kept saying that they thought she was going to die.”
  • A patient in Washington began miscarrying at 6 or 7 weeks and went to the only emergency room available to her. The hospital delayed care for 7 hours while trying to determine whether the fetus had a heartbeat. By the time they finally performed the termination procedure that the patient needed, her “iron levels were so low that she needed a blood transfusion,” and she was put significantly higher at risk for sudden fetal demise in subsequent pregnancies.

Insultingly, the Members who wrote this section titled it the “Conscience Protection Act” in a gross attempt to distract readers from the real impact of this bill: denying patients health care.
All patients seeking abortions, regardless of their medical circumstances, should be able to receive accurate information, referrals, and services once they have decided to have an abortion. No patient should ever be turned away from a health care provider simply because of the facility’s or individual’s personal beliefs.
Voters oppose laws that allow refusals
A majority of voters across the country agree that health care entities should not be able to use religious or personal beliefs to refuse to participate in abortion services. A national representative survey conducted by the National Women’s Law Center just months ago found that 61% of voters oppose these kinds of religious exemption laws. Additionally:

  • 63% 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.
  • 62% percent of voters oppose laws that allow insurance companies to refuse to cover a woman’s abortion because of religious or moral beliefs.

The Members of Congress who repeatedly push legislation like this should be listening to their constituents and protecting patients. Instead, many Members are apparently more interested in using “religious liberty” to create and expand a license to discriminate for corporations, institutions, and individuals. For shame.