When Religious Beliefs Play a Role in Medical Care

Public Affairs, 212-854-2650
New York, Nov. 23, 2009 -- Under the First Amendment, a healthcare provider’s religious beliefs should be accommodated, but the question remains to what extent.
Steve Aden, senior legal counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund, and Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney in the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, tackled this question in a recent debate at Columbia Law School.
The issue of conscience objections in the medical profession gained increased attention when the Bush Administration, in its final days, promulgated a provider refusal rule. It expanded the right of health care workers and institutions to refuse to provide medical care, counseling, and referrals for religious or moral reasons.
Kolbi-Molinas is co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging the regulation. “The ACLU believes an individual's—as opposed to an institution's—religious objection to the provision of certain health care services should be accommodated to the maximum possible extent, so long as patients' rights, including their right not to be discriminated against, are not compromised as a result,” she said.
“Whatever their religious or moral beliefs, health care professionals should ensure patients receive complete and accurate information, obtain appropriate referrals, and secure immediate care in an emergency.”
Reasonable delays in non-emergency situations—for example, having to wait at a pharmacy to receive emergency contraception while a pharmacist, who objects to the use of emergency contraception for religious reasons, gets another pharmacist to dispense the medication—are a reasonable accommodation of providers’ beliefs, Kolbi-Molinas said.
This controversy flared in New York in July, when a Catholic nurse sued Mount Sinai Medical Center for allegedly being forced to assist in a late-term abortion procedure. Aden, who is co-counsel in that case, found some common ground with Kolbi-Molinas regarding the conscience rights of individual providers. But he cautioned that health exception provisions are too broad and could threaten conscience rights.
Moreover, Aden said institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, were also entitled to conscience protections when it came to refusing to perform abortion procedures, and expressed concern for pharmacists who are pressured to provide emergency contraception against their beliefs.
"One in six Americans receives health care treatment at a Catholic hospital,” Aden said  Are we really intent on risking the damage that would result to the health care system if Catholic providers pulled out of the market rather than violate their fundamental religious convictions?"
Aden argued that regardless of how an individual views abortion, he or she could still recognize the vital importance of protecting nurses, doctors, and pharmacists from doing something they viewed as morally abhorrent.
The Nov. 9 debate was sponsored by the Federalist Society, Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Law Students for Life, and the American Constitution Society. The event was funded by a grant awarded to the Federalist Society from the John Templeton Foundation.
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