US House Members Lied About Research to Justify Allowing Hospitals to Refuse to Help Patients

The Labor-HHS committee released a draft funding bill on July 12 that would devastate individuals’ access to health care in many ways. Within the bill is a section that would make it easier for hospitals, insurance companies, universities, and employers to deny health care services, coverage, referrals, and information about abortion based on religious or moral belief.
This section uses a blatant lie to try to justify itself and distract readers from the bill’s awful effects on patients. It cites to a 2011 study that found that 14% of ob/gyns in the U.S. provide abortions. The bill shamelessly misuses this finding, claiming that the remaining 86% percent of ob/gyns must be “unwilling to provide” abortions. This claim is an utterly wrong interpretation of a basic research result: Just because someone doesn’t do something does not mean they are unwilling to do that thing.

Furthermore, this claim obscures the fact that many health care professionals very much want to help patients seeking abortions but can’t because their employer uses religious or moral beliefs to stop providers from helping patients. Given the realities of being a health care professional with limited employment options, it is highly likely that many of the 86% of ob/gyns who don’t provide abortions are simply prohibited from doing so and afraid of losing their jobs should they express a desire to help patients seeking abortions.
Many doctors want to help patients seeking abortion, but their hospital employer won’t let them
The politicians who drafted this bill are mischaracterizing research to pretend that doctors and nurses support laws allowing hospitals to refuse patient care. But this is decidedly untrue.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the national professional association of ob/gyns, has a policy statement on abortion saying that “decisions regarding abortion should be made by patients in consultation with their health care providers and without undue interference by outside parties.” Despite this professional statement in support of providers who want to provide abortion, we know that hospitals and other health care employers actively discourage or outright prevent doctors from providing patients with abortion services and referrals.
Studies show that more than half of ob/gyns employed at Catholic hospitals experience conflict with their employers over religiously-based policies. Ob/gyns report frustration and anger when they are forced by their hospital employer to deny abortion services and sometimes even referrals to patients who are in critical need. Ob/gyns also report being frustrated with their employers for not allowing them to provide abortions even when the number of abortion providers in the region is dwindling.
Hospitals discriminate against doctors and nurses who participate in abortion or show support for abortion
In addition to prohibiting physicians from providing abortions, hospitals discriminate against doctors and nurses who have participated in abortion services or expressed public support of abortion in the past. Discrimination happens in all kinds of health care institutions, including public and private hospitals, religiously affiliated institutions and secular institutions. For example:

  • Employees are punished for expressing support for abortion access publicly. In 2016, Dr. Diane Horvath-Cosper was providing abortions at a private secular nonprofit hospital in Washington, D.C., and was threatened with termination for publishing articles and speaking with media about the importance of abortion access. The National Women’s Law Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office for Civil Rights on behalf of Dr. Horvath-Cosper, but other physicians across the country report receiving similar threats from their hospital employers when they attempt to speak publicly about abortion.
  • Employees are threatened when their employer is purchased by or merges with a hospital system that forbids them to moonlight as an abortion provider. One physician reported working happily for many years in private practice and working one day a week providing abortions at a local clinic. However, when her practice was purchased by a Catholic health care system, she was told that she would have to stop moonlighting as an abortion provider or else be fired.
  • Qualified job applicants have offers rescinded when employers google their names and find prior advocacy or work relating to abortion. Doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals who have provided abortions in the past, or who engage in public advocacy around abortion, report having job offers suddenly rescinded once the prospective employers learn of the provider’s past or ongoing participation in abortion care and advocacy.

Laws that allow hospital employers to prohibit doctors from providing abortion services and referrals clearly undermine doctors’ ability to put patient health first. It is dishonest for members of the Labor-HHS committee to misinterpret research to try to pretend that they are not standing between health care providers and patients who need care.
If you are a health care professional who has faced discrimination or hostile actions from your employer related to your involvement with the provision of abortion, or simply because you support abortion access, the National Women’s Law Center would like to hear your story.  We can talk to you about the federal and state laws that offer protection to health care providers who have faced such discrimination. We may be able to take action to help protect you.