Bill would exempt health care workers from liability in conscience cases
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Dec 11, 2013 | 2984 views |  0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — A Calhoun County lawmaker's bill would give Alabama health care workers the right to refuse some services that violate their conscience — though it's not clear how the bill would affect access to abortion.

"If it's against your religion to participate in a procedure, you wouldn't have to participate," said Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, whose district includes a portion of northern Calhoun County.

Nordgren is the sponsor of the Healthcare Rights of Conscience Act, a bill that, if passed in the 2014 legislative session, would exempt workers in health care organizations from being criminally or civilly liable for refusing to provide some reproductive health care services if those services violate the worker's own religious or moral principles — unless that refusal endangers a patient's life. The worker would have to advise his or her employer of the moral objection in writing before being asked to perform a health care service.

The bill, which has been adopted by the House Republican leadership as part of its 2014 agenda, is nearly a word-for-word copy of a model bill proposed by Americans United for Life, a Washington, D.C., anti-abortion group.

The bill lists the types of procedures health care workers can object to — abortion, human cloning, stem cell research and sterilization — but the bill also states that those provisions wouldn't apply to licensed abortion clinics. Nordgren said that wording was included to keep the bill from being struck down in court.

"If you're already working at an abortion clinic, you probably don't have a moral objection to abortion," Nordgren said. The bill would also allow health care workers to refuse support services, such as referrals, that are abortion-related but might be available at clinics that don’t perform abortions.

Stem cells are still mostly used for research, and there's no evidence anyone has successfully cloned a viable human embryo. But Nordgren said the bill would provide an out for medical workers who have a moral objection to sterilization procedures such as vasectomies or tubal ligations.

The bill wouldn't affect patients' access to sterilization, Nordgren claims, because most medical workers don't object to sterilization.

The president of the Alabama branch of the National Organization for Women disagrees.

“These laws are already affecting access,” said Shirley Ann Rawls, state president of NOW. Rawls said other states have passed similar laws, some of which allow medical providers to refuse to provide contraception, and women have reported that pharmacists have refused them birth control pills.

Nordgren’s bill doesn’t allow an opt-out for providing contraception, but Rawls said it’s likely the bill would create similar problems for women seeking medical procedures. She said the bill is part of a long-running effort to chip away at abortion rights.

“I don’t understand why they do this,” Rawls said of the mostly-male Legislature. “They all have wives and daughters. You’d think they’d want to take care of them.”

Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said that if the bill reaches the House floor, she’ll propose an amendment that would require doctors to let potential patients know, through advertising, which services they refuse to provide.

“My question is, why are you in the health care profession if you don’t want to provide health care?” she said. She said the Legislature rarely makes an effort to regulate male-specific medical services such as impotence drugs or prostate exams.

Attempts to reach Michael Gladden, who has announced his intention to run as a Democrat against Nordgren in 2014, were unsuccessful.

Nordgren's bill has been before the Legislature at least twice before, with different sponsors. Of the nine bills on the Republican House agenda, it's the only one that mentions abortion; most of the rest are tax-related.

"They were looking for bills that were relatively non-controversial this year," Nordgren said.

Last year's House agenda included a bill that imposed new regulations on abortion clinics — regulations that abortion-rights advocates said were intended to shut clinics down.

The legislative session begins Jan. 14.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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