Conscience Rights for Health Care Workers
Legislative leaders are reviving efforts to win passage of bills which would strengthen the conscience rights of health care practitioners in Missouri. Legislation introduced in the Missouri House and Senate would ensure that medical professionals cannot be forced to participate in medical procedures that violate their conscience.
Senator Scott Rupp of Wentzville has introduced the Senate version of the bill, Senate Bill 84. House Speaker Tim Jones has introduced the House version of the measure, House Bill 457. A hearing was held on the Senate bill last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the House bill is expected to be heard soon. The health care conscience measure won overwhelming approval in the Missouri House last session, but was never taken up by the Senate.
The bills prohibit discrimination against any health care professional for declining to participate in medical procedures which violate their religious, moral, or ethical principles. The legislation defines "discrimination" to include termination, suspension, demotion, loss of career specialty, or any other disciplinary or retaliatory action. Health care employees would also be shielded from civil liability for exercising their conscience rights.
Medical procedures and activities covered by the bill include abortion, abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, assisted reproduction, non-therapeutic fetal experimentation, and sterilizations which are not medically necessary. Medical professionals who would be protected under the bill include physicians, physician's assistants, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, certified nurse practitioners, and medical assistants.
The issue of conscience protection in the medical field has resurfaced in recent years as a result of some high-profile cases of institutional misconduct. In these cases, hospitals demanded that nurses participate in abortions despite federal laws that protect their right to refuse involvement in such procedures.
In the most notorious case, nurse Cathy Cenzon Decarlo was forced to assist in an elective late-term abortion of a 22-week preborn child at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. At the start of her shift early one Sunday morning in May 2009, Decarlo was falsely told that she would be assisting in a dilation and curretage procedure. She soon discovered that this was not the case, and was then provided another false story that the abortion was a lifesaving emergency.
Despite the fact that DeCarlo had paperwork on file stating she had a conscientious objection to participating in abortion, she was ordered to assist in the procedure under threat of disciplinary action, up to and including possible termination from her position.
DeCarlo was subjected to assisting the doctor as he removed the bloody body parts from the child and identified those body parts to make sure no remnants of the unborn child were remaining. DeCarlo was then required to dispose of the body parts of the dead child. She says that she felt like she was an unwilling participant in a horror movie, and continues to have recurring nightmares of the incident.
DeCarlo filed suit in federal court alleging violation of her religious liberties and her professional conscience rights. A U.S. district court and federal appeals court both dismissed her suit, ruling that the federal conscience protection laws do not provide for a private cause of action. Earlier this month, after nearly four years of wrangling with the hospital, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services obtained an agreement from Mt. Sinai to comply with federal conscience statutes and refrain from taking any adverse action against DeCarlo.
Yet another case involved a group of a dozen nurses at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, New Jersey. Hospital officials abruptly informed the nurses, who had worked for years in the same-day surgery department, that they would soon be assisting in abortions in the outpatient surgery unit.
When the nurses registered their moral objections to being engaged in the destruction of unborn children, they were informed in cavalier fashion that their religious convictions were of no relevance to their job. When one of the nurses again raised the issue with her nursing supervisor, she was curtly told: "All you have to do is catch the baby's head. Don't worry. It's already dead."
The bills filed by Senator Rupp and Representative Jones would also protect medical researchers in medical laboratories. They could not be compelled to participate in fetal tissue research, human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, or somatic cell nuclear transfer. Medical and nursing school students and faculty would also be provided anti-discrimination protections.
The legislation would also protect religious health care institutions from civil liability for declining to perform medical procedures that violate its bylaws and moral, ethical, and religious guidelines. Government agencies would be prohibited from discriminating against such institutions with regard to public funding or government licensing.
Missouri currently has a law on the books, enacted in 1986, which provided conscience protections as they relate to surgical abortion. However, the law includes two major loopholes. The law can be ignored if an institution can claim that compliance would cause an "undue hardship," or if the performance of abortions is a "bonafide occupational qualification." Both of these arguments were used in the case involving the New Jersey nurses to justify trampling on their conscience rights.
We encourage you to contact your state senator and state representative to urge them to vote for these bills. You can reach your state senator to advocate for support of Senate Bill 84 by using this link:
You can contact your state representative to urge support for House Bill 457 by using this link:
The boundaries of Missouri legislative districts have changed considerably as a result of redistricting. If you are not sure who your legislators are, you can obtain that information by using this link: