Arkansas Governor Signs Law Protecting Conscience Rights for Health Care Providers

March 27, 2021 Updated: March 28, 2021

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law on March 26 a measure that protects health care providers from discrimination if they refuse to provide medical services for religious or moral reasons.

The bill, known as the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, states that doctors and other health care workers have the right to not participate in a health care service if it violates their conscience. The law seeks to protect the right of conscience and prevents others from discriminating against a medical practitioner who exercises his or her conscience rights.

However, it carves out an exception that prevents health care workers of faith from denying emergency medical care.

“I weighed this bill very carefully, and it should be noted that I opposed the bill in the 2017 legislative session. The bill was changed to ensure that the exercise of the right of conscience is limited to ‘conscience-based objections to a particular health care service,'” Hutchinson said in a statement.

Hutchinson opposed a similar measure in 2017 that failed before a House committee. But he said the law he signed was narrower and limits the objections to particular health care services, not treating specific types of people.

“I support this right of conscience so long as emergency care is exempted and conscience objection cannot be used to deny general health service to any class of people. Most importantly, the federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, and national origin continue to apply to the delivery of health care services,” he said.

The law also creates a pathway for health care workers who have been discriminated against to sue for damages due to a violation of the law.

Opponents of the law, including the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union, have said it will allow doctors to refuse to offer a host of services for LGBTQIA+ patients. The state Chamber of Commerce also opposed the measure, saying it sends the wrong message about the state.

They also argue that types of health care that could be cut off include maintaining hormone treatments for transgender patients needing in-patient care for an infection, or grief counseling for a same-sex couple. They’ve also said it could also be used to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control, or by physicians’ assistants to override patient directives on end-of-life care.

ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson criticized the measure but didn’t indicate whether the organization intends to challenge the law.

A day earlier, Hutchinson signed into law a bill that would bar biological males from participating in women’s sports. While he has since been accused of targeting the LGBTQIA+ community, the governor has also made it his priority to pass a hate crimes bill that aims to protect individuals who have been targeted because of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. However, efforts to pass the bill have stalled in the Republican-majority legislature.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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