Bill shielding Catholic hospital doctors advances, despite religious liberty concerns

On Wednesday, lawmakers advanced a bill shielding health care workers from retaliation if they discuss abortion, contraception and gender-affirming services. Catholic Church leaders called the proposal an assault on their religious freedom.

John Craven

Mar 20, 2024, 9:42 PM

Updated 30 days ago

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What doctors can – and cannot – tell patients at religiously-affiliated hospitals is sparking debate at the Connecticut state Capitol.
On Wednesday, lawmakers advanced a bill shielding health care workers from retaliation if they discuss abortion, contraception and gender-affirming services. Catholic Church leaders called the proposal an assault on their religious freedom.
DOCTORS HAMSTRUNG?
Dr. Iyanna Liles is an OB/GYN in Hamden. She left a faith-based practice over concerns about what she was allowed to say.
"I trained eight years to do this – four years of medical school and four years of residency – only to be told that I can't provide at least counseling," she said.
House Bill 5424 would change that.
"A health care entity may not discharge, demote, suspend, or otherwise discriminate against a health care provider for providing a reproductive health care service," it states.
Hospitals would not have to perform services they disagree with, but they couldn't stop doctors from referring patients elsewhere.
"The goal of this bill is simple," said Dr. Nancy Stanwood, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. "To ensure that health care providers do not face disciplinary action for providing evidence-based care and accurate information to their patients."
The Legislature's Public Health Committee approved the measure Wednesday on a bi-partisan basis, with several Republicans voting yes.
"This bill clarifies what we want done all the time," said state Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria (R-Seymour). "That people get the right information, that you're just guided to know your options."
The Connecticut Department of Health said it's unaware of any doctors actually losing their jobs for talking about abortion or contraception.
"BLATANT ATTACK ON CATHOLIC HEALTH"
The law could impact Trinity Health's three hospitals – including St. Mary's in Waterbury and St. Francis in Hartford. In addition, St. Vincent's in Bridgeport and St. Raphael in New Haven are no longer Catholic-owned, but still follow church directives.
"This bill is a blatant attack on Catholic health care and religious freedom in our state," said Family Institute of Connecticut president Peter Wolfgang.
Faith leaders said the proposal is an unconstitutional violation of religious liberty.
"It goes to give the employee some latitude by saying, 'You know what? You don't have to listen to what your upper management says. If you aren't feeling in your heart what you're doing is the correct thing, then just do it,'" said David Reynolds, with the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference. "What other employer does that?"
As lawmakers voted on Wednesday, hundreds of abortion opponents rallied outside the Capitol for the annual Connecticut March for Life.
"The stakes are too high to sit around and do nothing," said Chris Healy, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference. "We are a very powerful group of people when we speak collectively."
ROE V WADE DECISION
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, Connecticut lawmakers have aggressively expanded reproductive rights. They passed the nation's first shield law protecting doctors and patients from legal action, and also expanded who can perform abortions.
This year, top Democrats are pushing for an amendment to the state constitution to lock in reproductive rights.
"If anybody thinks that some of these things are settled, they're not settled," said state Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk). "Through this constitutional amendment, we will not only be protecting abortion rights from a swing in control of the General Assembly, but also so many other fundamental freedoms and rights that Connecticut residents expect."
The state also launched a website and a hotline showing patients where to get the procedure – and even how to get insurance coverage, transportation and financial help.
However, lawmakers rejected a $2 million "Safe Harbor Fund" to help pay for out-of-state patients' procedures.
WHAT'S NEXT?
The faith-based health care bill now heads to the full Connecticut House of Representatives. Democratic leaders said it's likely to see some changes to address concerns from hospitals.
"We did work with legislators and proponents to ensure that the legislation would not have unintended consequences," said Nicole Rall with the Connecticut Hospital Association. "For example, earlier versions of the bill did not provide mechanisms for appropriate oversight of medical staff and would have interfered with the ability of hospitals to review practitioner competencies


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