The vast majority of U.S. states have passed laws blocking civil lawsuits that might result from a doctor refusing to perform an abortion or certain other medical procedures because of religious beliefs, a new study shows.
The national survey found that 46 states had laws protecting medical professionals and institutions from being sued for harm to patients related to a refusal to provide services out of conscience, researchers report in JAMA.
“The biggest takeaway from this research is that while people are aware that conscience laws may impact a woman’s right to access reproductive services, they may not know that these laws also may impact access to the legal system when they are injured as a result of conscientious refusal,” said the study’s author, Nadia Sawicki, Georgia Reithal Professor of Law at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
“The majority of patients have no idea whether their local hospital is religiously affiliated,” Sawicki said. “So they don’t know if there are providers who can’t provide services. I hope this research brings to light the very real impact that conscience laws have not just on access to care but also on the right to legal recovery in cases where the patient is injured.”
While the current report analyzed laws affecting abortion, Sawicki noted there is a larger study that looks at other reproductive services, including sterilization, emergency contraception and assisted reproduction. The full dataset is available on the LawAtlas Policy Surveillance Portal, Sawicki said.
Altogether, 46 states had one or more laws protecting clinicians and institutions, as well as other individuals and entities, from adverse consequences that might arise as a result of their conscientious refusal to participate in abortion. The most common protection was a prohibition on civil lawsuits against conscientious refusers, Sawicki reported.
Most states did not have exceptions to the laws, even in cases of potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy, and most did not require the clinician to provide a referral or information regarding access to services. Twenty-six states imposed no conditions on the rights of refusal.