Conscience Clause Bill Passes Committee

By Crystal A. Proxmire

Senate Bill 975, which seeks to legalize discrimination in health care based on "moral" objections, has been approved by committee and has been sent back to the Senate for a vote. The Senate Committee on Health Policy recommended that the bill be passed with immediate effect, and if that happens, healthcare providers would have six months to implement a procedure through which employees could opt out of providing morally-compromising services.

The Religious Liberty and Conscience Protection Act addresses three levels of care. It allows any health facility to decline providing services if they have "a moral or religiously-based desire not to." It gives employers the right to exclude objectionable procedures from employee's health care benefits. And it gives doctors, nurses and pharmacists the right to refuse to participate in health care services they object to based on "sincerely held religious beliefs."

Marry Pollock, legislative vice president of the National Organization for Women, gave testimony about the potential effects of this bill back in June:

"SB 975's apparent intent is to reduce the number of insurers, facilities and providers who provide comprehensive reproductive health care, or health care services to homosexuals based on the religious tenets of the Catholic Bishops. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one of three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Ninety - nine percent of American women have used birth control. Catholics themselves reflect these same percentages. The bill provides no religious liberty protection to these women and homosexuals but instead permits and promotes denial of services to them.

"Some examples of what SB 975 would permit:

- An insurer or employer could refuse to cover pregnancy costs associated with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy

- An insurance company could refuse all coverage for gays or lesbians based on the religious objection of the insurance company

- A doctor could refuse to provide services to a woman, a minority, or an HIV-positive person

- A hospital could block doctors from treating miscarriages and late ectopic pregnancies. Women who need a life-saving abortion could quite literally be left to die, all in the name of "conscience."

In addition to the medical harm that this bill would cause, it stomps on true religious freedom by bringing attention to divisions between religions in the workplace. "The bill is a religious favoritism bill and violative of the most basic religious freedom doctrines on which this country was founded," Pollock said. "It is a shocking bill in light of what we know about where religious intolerance leads."

The bill, whose primary sponsor is Senator John Moolenaar (R - Midland), is the latest in a series of bills aimed at legalizing discrimination in Michigan on religious or moral grounds.

Equality Michigan, the statewide anti-violence and advocacy organization serving the LGBTcommunities, has called on Michigan's State Senators to reject this latest attempt to provide licenses to discriminate in Michigan. The organization has also spoken against Michigan House Bills 5763 and 5764, which would provide adoption agencies with a similar license to discriminate based on religious or moral convictions.

Emily Dievendorf, Director of Policy at Equality Michigan, said "At a time when our nation is having a conversation about providing better health care and access to it, extremists in Michigan are choosing to waste our money by doing the opposite and finding ways to keep people from potentially life-saving health care. In complete contrast with the Hippocratic Oath, Senator Moolenaar is suggesting that we empower health professionals to first do harm by using a license to discriminate to turn away a patient based on any arbitrary criteria. Denying emergency room care to a Jewish patient care over disagreements on religious text is not what they had in mind when asking professionals to pledge to the Hippocratic Oath. This reprehensible bill must be stopped before it becomes embarrassingly clear that Michigan is a state which prefers hate over compassion."

Jay Kaplan of the ACLU's LGBT Project also has concerns. "Institutions that operate in the public world should play by the public rules. They shouldn't be able to discriminate. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly. We must hold all medical centers and institutions serving the public, whether they are religiously affiliated or not- to the same standards," Kaplan said. "A patient's health should be the health care facility's first priority, regardless of its affiliation. Individual, personal health care decisions should not be overridden by an institution's religious objections."

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