We Should Be More Like Sweden, Where Patient Health Care May Actually Come First

A Swedish court recently demonstrated a commitment to putting patients’ health first. The court was responding to a complaint by a Swedish midwife claiming that a hospital had discriminated against her by refusing to hire her when she said she would be unwilling to treat a woman seeking an abortion. The court rejected the midwife’s claim, declaring that hospital had a “right to require midwives working at women’s clinics to carry out all of their duties, including abortions.”
The Swedish Association of Health Professionals vocally opposed the midwife’s stance back in 2014 when she originally filed her complaint. A vice chairperson for the Association said, “[a]s a patient in Sweden it must be very clear what (health[]care) you can expect according to Swedish law… It should not depend on [the beliefs of the health care professional] you happen to encounter.”
Patients in the United States deserve no less. Yet, there are multiple examples of health care professionals refusing to treat women seeking reproductive health care, even when that is part of the job description.  Some health care providers have even argued that they should be able to refuse to care for patients after an abortion. Some have argued they should be able to refuse to provide a woman with information or referrals about abortion because of religious or moral beliefs. Hospitals have denied women abortion care even when the patients’ pregnancies or miscarriages were threatening their lives.  Other reports have found that health care institutions and individual providers across the country are using religious beliefs to justify turning patients away not only for abortion and miscarriage management, but also for contraception, assisted reproductive treatments, and HIV treatment.
Unfortunately, there are state and federal laws in the U.S. – sometimes called “religious exemption” or “religious refusal” laws – that allow doctors, nurses, and hospitals to determine a patient’s care based on religious beliefs rather than on what is best for the patient’s health and circumstances. Because of this it is extremely difficult for patients to be able to count on receiving comprehensive health care when they enter a health care facility.
A health care provider’s religious beliefs should never determine the care a patient receives. How can we be truly committed to patient care and women’s health care in particular when we allow politicians to give health care providers a license to refuse basic reproductive health care based on religious belief? The midwife’s case demonstrates that we’ve got something important to learn from Sweden about what a truly patient-centered health care system looks like.