At a House Health Care Policy Committee hearing, bill sponsor Rep. Timothy Jones, R-St. Louis County, said this bill would act as protection of an employers' conscience. Jones is currently the House Majority Leader, and is slated to become Speaker the House.
"No physician, nurse or any other health care provider would be required to participate in any medical procedure that violates their conscience or their religious beliefs," Jones said. "I look at this as a civil liberties issue."
Jones said he believes this is a timely bill, since President Barack Obama recently announced a law that would require all employers to cover birth control for women in their insurance. Republicans and religious groups strongly oppose Obama's mandate.
Jones' proposal would prevent health care providers in public and private health care facilities from being discriminated against or held civilly or criminally liable if they chose to opt out of participating in procedures that violate his or her conscience."There is no dilemma that anyone would face more significant in life and more distressing and disturbing than to be compelled to participate or engage in something that one believes is morally wrong, if doing so and the insistence that one do so is under threat of loss of employment, " the Missouri Family Policy Council Director, Joe Ortwerth, said.
Twenty-six years ago, a piece of legislation similar to this attempted to address the conscience issue when it came to abortion. Ortwerth said this was the first effort to put specific conscience protections, with regards to the subject of abortion, into state statutes.
"It's become clear over time that certain exceptions that were written into the law at that time have become problematic and failed to adequately protect the conscience rights of doctors, nurses and other medical care workers," Ortwerth said.
Ortwerth presented an example of a woman working in a hospital in New York who was called upon to assist in an abortion. She said she could not because it violated her conscience and was then told that if she did not assist, she would lose her job. Ortwerth said this bill would make sure that those types of circumstances do not occur in Missouri.
"What this legislation would do is to establish, in Missouri law, the template of those regulations that were attempted on the federal level, to protect the conscience rights of Missouri health care employees," Ortwerth said.
Kerry Messer, a lobbyist from American Society for Life, said he believes religious liberty should be held to the highest possible standards in Missouri.
Dr. Ira Kodner, a professor of surgery at Washington University, said he supports the importance of never forcing a person to violate their conscience, but he said that if the demands of the medical profession are against an individual's ethics, they should make other career choices.
"The definition of professionalism for a physician states that when confronted with the choice to care for a patient or to protect your own welfare, we must sacrifice our own security for that of our patient," Kodner said.
Kodner said he believes that physicians should not put themselves in situations that are incompatible with their beliefs. He used the example of withdrawing life support, saying a physician should not initiate life support if he or she is opposed to withdrawing it.
"My commitment, as a physician is to take care of the patient first," Kodner said.
Dr. Ed Weisbart a surgeon in opposition to the legislation said he believes this legislation would enable the kind of behavior that it is trying to prevent. He presented examples of patients he has treated, in which the legislation could have prevented different outcomes.
One example included a woman with a severe heart condition. Despite warnings, she became pregnant and had a 50 percent chance of survival. Weisbart said that if he was a physician opposed to abortion, under this legislation, he would not have been forced to tell her the risks or suggest an abortion.
"Physicians have an obligation to do these things," Weisbart said.
The House committee has not yet taken any action on this bill.
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