February 8, 2019

Senate bill would protect conscience rights of health care professionals

By Victoria Arthur

As a family practice physician and a devout Catholic, Dr. Andrew Mullally runs a medical office that is unabashedly pro-life.

That’s why prospective patients are told up front what he and his team cannot provide them, including any services or referrals related to contraception or abortion. The Fort Wayne-based practice is clearly a rarity in today’s world, but Mullally firmly believes that no one in the health care field should be forced to engage in activities that violate their personal convictions.

His dedication to this issue brought him to the Indiana General Assembly last week, where he testified in favor of legislation that would expand conscience protection rights related to abortion across a broader range of health care professionals.

While current state law applies only to physicians and hospital employees, Senate Bill 201 would extend conscience protection to nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals licensed in Indiana. The bill would prohibit any health care provider from being required to perform an abortion, or assist or participate in procedures intended to result in an abortion if the provider objects on ethical, moral or religious grounds.

“This bill is essential to close a vulnerability in our current conscience protection laws in Indiana,” said Mullally, who operates privately owned Credo Family Medicine, affiliated with the Dr. Jerome Lejeune Catholic Medical Guild of Northeast Indiana.

“Traditionally, health care has been provided primarily by physicians. But due to the shortage of physicians and the rise of newer education models for health care providers, we now live in an age where a significant amount of health care services are provided by non-physicians,” Mullally noted. “Physician assistants, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and allied health professionals all play a valuable role in the health care team and are increasingly being called on to take a managing role in the care of patients. This is a new and rapidly expanding change to the health care climate, and it’s vital that our laws keep up.”

Mullally and other supporters of Senate Bill 201 described this expanding “scope of practice” in the health care field during a Jan. 30 Senate health committee hearing. The bill’s primary author, Sen. Liz Brown (R-Fort Wayne), noted that the state’s current conscience protection laws have been in place for at least 25 years and that they must be changed to adapt to the times.

“A lot of nurse practitioners and physician assistants have prescribing authority today, and they can prescribe a full list of drugs that previously only doctors could prescribe,” Brown said.

She cited the example of RU 486, the so-called “abortion pill,” which has offered an alternative to surgical abortion since its introduction in the United States in 2000. The combination of medications is intended to terminate a pregnancy at up to 10 weeks. There have been numerous cases of prescribers and pharmacists objecting to prescribing and dispensing the medicine.

“We are not about preventing access to care, but anyone who has a moral or religious objection to being involved in abortion should not have to violate their conscience,” said Brown, who represents Senate District 15 and is a member of St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. “This bill is important to anybody who believes in the sanctity of life.”

The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the bill. Representing the ICC before the Senate committee, Glenn Tebbe cited the availability of medication abortion as a prime example for the need to update state conscience protection law.

“Because of the expansion of abortion methods, it is necessary to provide expanded conscience protection for health care providers,” said Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “When Indiana law was established, RU 486 was not available. It is time to add pharmacists and other health care providers to those protected in law from being forced to violate their conscience.

“The Church teaches that one is obligated to follow one’s conscience, and that citizens are not obligated to follow civil authority if it is contrary to moral order, the rights of people, or the Gospel,” Tebbe continued. “Besides a moral duty, this is a basic human right.”

Brown said she believes the bill has support in her Republican caucus and that she considers Indiana a pro‑life state. No one spoke in opposition to the bill during last week’s hearing, although there were questions regarding whether the list of health care providers was too broad in scope.

As she and other proponents of the bill wait for a committee vote to be scheduled, they continue to watch developments in other states.

New York recently made headlines since the passage last month of the Reproductive Health Act, signed into law on the 46th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand. In addition to making late‑term abortion permissible for almost any reason, the New York law allows nurse practitioners, physician assistants and licensed midwives to perform abortions.

For Mullally, whose parents are both physicians and their example of helping people inspired him to become a doctor himself, these changes are extremely troubling.

“Once someone is ‘allowed’ to do something [in their respective profession], for some employees it will be what they’re expected to do,” he said. “This is happening in real time, and something like what’s occurring in New York can have repercussions through all the states. Being pro‑life in medicine, we run an uphill battle every day. That is why it’s so important to expand the conscience protection rights of people in this changing climate.”

A vote on Senate Bill 201 is expected in the Senate health committee in the coming weeks. To follow this and other priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org.
 

(Victoria Arthur, a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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