The National Women’s Law Center is committed to removing all barriers to reproductive health care access. One major barrier that’s been getting lots of attention lately is religious refusals, imposed by institutions and individuals who claim that their beliefs justify denying patients access to services, information and referrals. Much attention has been drawn to the issue with the 11th hour promulgation of the Bush Administration’s HHS Refusal Rule. Currently the Obama Administration has proposed rescinding the rule. In the meantime, the debate rages on, with those who support refusals often claiming that providers’ “conscience” should trump patients’ right to health care, because patients who are refused can “just go someplace else.” Not only is this presumption flatly wrong, but it fails to recognize the full scope of physical, emotional and economic harms that can result from provider refusals.
- Some providers have asserted a right to refuse medical care even in emergency situations. There are documented cases of providers withholding treatment to women having miscarriages, because any (potentially life-saving) intervention while there was still a fetal heartbeat amounted to an “abortion” in their opinion.
- Some providers insist on the right to deny patients information about treatment options, even when patients are depending on doctors to give them all of the facts they need to make important decisions about their health and lives. A cancer patient could choose a less effective treatment that spares her fertility over one that has better odds but would render her infertile because her doctor withheld information about the option of freezing her fertilized eggs.
- Some providers assert a right to withhold referrals to another healthcare provider for services to which they object, even when their failure to do so may prevent a patient from timely access to time-sensitive treatment, such as emergency contraception.
- A doctor may claim that a woman needs birth control pills for a medical reason, such as endometriosis, so that her Catholic employer will allow the company’s insurance plan to cover them. If she ever loses her employer based health insurance, she could find herself unable to get individual insurance coverage because her medical records indicate that she has a preexisting condition.
We have more examples in our new paper, When health care providers refuse: The impact on patients of providers’ religious and moral objections to give medical care, information or referrals. It is not just a matter of patients “going someplace else.” Real people can suffer real harms as a result of religious refusals. Next time someone asks the question “What’s the big deal?” — make sure you are prepared to tell them.
For more information on religious restrictions in reproductive health care, please visit the National Women’s Law Center’s Health Care Religious Restrictions Project website.