A new bill in Arkansas would give healthcare providers the right to deny care to someone based on the provider’s “religious, moral, or ethical” beliefs. The bill would affect EMTs, first responders, nurses, doctors, and anyone providing care to a patient in a clinical setting. The authors and proponents of the bill argue that it gives workers more agency over whom they treat, but its critics say it would put the lives of certain individuals in danger, including atheists, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
What’s in the Bill?
The Arkansas legislature just passed the bill, officially known as S.B. 289, or the “Medical Ethics and Diversity Act,” after several rounds of amendments. It passed the state Senate and House along party lines with all but a few Republicans voting for the bill and all Democrats voting against it.
The bill now makes its way to Gov. Asa Hutchinson for final approval. The governor says he is “neutral” with respect to the bill, but the ball appears to be in his court in terms of whether it becomes law.
Called the “most extreme and deadly anti-LGBTQ healthcare bill” by LGBTQ+ advocates, the proposed legislation doesn’t outright mention that or any other minority community, but it could open the door for discrimination against some individuals.
Under the law, patients and individuals would be barred from suing providers if they refuse them care. Employees would also have the right to exempt themselves from certain procedures or surgeries if doing so goes against their beliefs.
As for employees that receive healthcare through their employer, their bosses can request that they be denied a certain procedure or surgery if it goes against their “conscience”.
Putting Lives at Risk or Fighting for Provider Freedom?
Co-sponsor Arkansas Rep. Brandt Smith (R) says he believes the bill “provides a solution and a remedy to protect the rights of medical workers,” including the decision not to perform surgery or administer care to a person, even in emergency situations.
One of the most powerful Democrats in the state, House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, said, “Why do you need a remedy for something that’s not happening?” in response to the bill. She added that some people may use the bill “to discriminate or to make folks feel uncomfortable in a lot of ways.”
Alphonso David, President of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement, “S.B. 289 prioritizes individual providers’ beliefs ahead of patient health and wellbeing. The Arkansas legislature understood this when they rejected a similar bill four years ago and they would be wise to do the same again this session.”
Nick Fish, President of American Atheists, urged the governor to reject the “deadly” bill in a written statement:
“If he does sign it into law, it will result in the deaths of Arkansans, and the blood will be on his hands. Lawmakers claim this bill is about conscience. Does Governor Hutchinson really want the deaths of Arkansans on his?” Fish added.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community already face challenges when accessing care, especially if their gender identity does not match what is stated on their state ID or license. In 2015, the National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE) found that 33% of respondents believed they had been mistreated, harassed, or physically assaulted by a doctor or other medical provider within the past year, and 8% said they were turned away altogether.
The bill would likely make it more difficult for trans individuals and other members of the community to get the care they need. It may also discourage some individuals, including those at risk of discrimination, from accessing care in the first place.
If the bill becomes law, opponents will likely challenge the law in court. Do you think providers should have the right to turn away patients depending on their personal beliefs?