Arkansas governor signs medical conscience objections law

Health Watch

FILE – In this July 20, 2020 file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson removes his mask before a briefing at the state capitol in Little Rock. Hutchinson has signed into law a measure that would allow doctors to refuse to treat someone because of moral or religious objections. Gov. Hutchinson on Friday, March 26, 2021, signed the legislation, despite objections that it would give medical providers broad powers to turn away LGBTQ patients and others. (Staci Vandagriff/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday signed into law legislation allowing doctors to refuse to treat someone because of religious or moral objections, a move opponents have said will give providers broad powers to turn away LGBTQ patients and others.

The measure says health care workers and institutions have the right to not participate in non-emergency treatments that violate their conscience. The new law won’t take effect until late this summer.

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 LGBTQ patients. The state Chamber of Commerce also opposed the measure, saying it sends the wrong message about the state.

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,” Hutchinson said in a statement released by his office. “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.”

Opponents have said 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

“There is no sugarcoating this: this bill is another brazen attempt to make it easier to discriminate against people and deny Arkansans the health care services they need,” ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said in a statement. The ACLU did not say whether it planned any legal action to try and block the law before it takes effect.

The law is among several measures targeting transgender people that have easily advanced through the majority-Republican Legislature this year. Hutchinson on Thursday signed a law that will prohibit transgender women and girls from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

A final vote is scheduled Monday on another proposal that would prohibit gender confirming treatments and surgery for minors.

The Human Rights Campaign announced Friday that it would air a television ad in Arkansas during the Arkansas-Oral Roberts game in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night denouncing measures such as the transgender athlete restrictions in Arkansas and other states.

“Trans kids are kids. They don’t deserve this cruelty,” the 30-second spot says.

The bills are advancing as a hate crimes measure backed by Hutchinson has stalled in the Legislature after facing resistance from conservatives. The bill would impose additional penalties for committing a crime against someone because of their characteristics, including their sexual orientation or gender identity.

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