Bill Allowing Arkansas Healthcare Providers To Refuse Service Over Moral Grounds Fails In Committee

Feb 25, 2021

Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe speaks in favor of Senate Bill 289 before members of the Arkansas House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
Credit Arkansas Legislature

A bill that would allow healthcare providers to decline certain non-emergency medical services because of their moral opposition has failed in a legislative committee.

Members of the Arkansas House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee voted not to approve Senate Bill 289 in a meeting Thursday following hours of debate, including an abbreviated public comment period cut short by a motion for immediate consideration.

Like other proponents of the bill who spoke in favor of it, Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe cited abortion and gender affirmation surgery for minors as two reasons physicians should be allowed to decline certain services for moral reasons.

"It is highly imperative that we keep politics out of these discussions because these are surgeries and other issues that sometimes are irreversible… you want to make absolutely certain that the person who is recommending that surgery to you is doing so because they believe it’s the right medical thing, and not because they have, for lack of a better term, the cold tentacle of the state wrapped around their throat, choking them and telling them they have to do that," Bledsoe said.

Bledsoe, who is also a candidate for lieutenant governor, said he also feared encroachment by the federal government in the form of requiring providers to take part in procedures going against their beliefs.

Supporters of the bill, such as Jonesboro attorney Stephanie Nichols, also said it is not discriminatory as it only allows providers to refuse services, not individual people.

"You can’t target that refusal based on who that patient is or how they live their lives. And I believe Arkansas values reflect the ability of doctors and nurses to decline to perform particular services, which is what the bill does. But nowhere in it does it allow you to make that decision based on the patient who is showing up in your clinic for services," Nichols said.

However, Dr. Tom Vanhook with the Arkansas chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians said the vague language of the bill makes it impossible to ensure that patients would not be discriminated against for their individual beliefs or attributes.

"If you’ll read the definition of 'healthcare service' in… the bill itself, it says 'initial examination.' How can you possibly refuse an initial examination without discriminating against somebody? You can’t," Vanhook said. "If you’re trying to give somebody the right to decline to participate in a procedure, say that. But that’s not what it says, it says 'service' and 'service' is incredibly broad."

Numerous critics of the bill have said it would allow physicians to deny service to LGBTQ people based on their religious beliefs. Former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck also spoke against the bill, saying it would be impossible to prove, from a legal standpoint, that providers were not discriminating against patients.

"It overrides all licensing requirements and standards of practice for doctors, and most importantly under this bill, patients have no right of redress," Tuck said. "In sum, SB289 is devoid of any patient protection, and is an open license for doctors to discriminate based on a patient’s actual or perceived group membership."

Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook also said numerous large employers in the state have come out against the bill, citing its discriminatory nature.

Though the bill initially passed on a voice vote, a roll call reversed that vote with eight voting for and 10 voting against, with one member and the committee’s chair not voting.