New state law lets medical providers refuse care over religious beliefs

Gloved hand raised as if saying "no."
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A law that went into effect last week in South Carolina allows medical practitioners, health care institutions and health care payers to refuse offering some non-emergency medical services based on religious beliefs.

Gov. Henry McMaster signed the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act law last Friday. It establishes that a practitioner or entity’s “conscience” should dictate whether they provide certain, non-emergency services, and it includes religious beliefs in the definition of conscience.

A similar bill was signed into law last year by Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas.

“Threats to the right of conscience of medical practitioners, health care institutions, and health care payers have become increasingly more common and severe in recent years,” said the legislation. “The swift pace of scientific advancement and the expansion of medical capabilities, along with the mistaken notion that medical practitioners, health care institutions, and health care payers are mere public utilities, promise only to make the current crisis worse, unless something is done to restore conscience to its rightful place.”

There are limits to the ability medical practitioners will have to refuse services. For example, the law does not allow practitioners to refuse to provide any health care based on a patient’s race and it does not override requirements to provide emergency medical care or override federal regulations.

Abortions were specifically singled out in the law as procedures that medical practitioners and entities can refuse.

Last month a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn abortion protections established by Roe V. Wade in the 1970s was published by POLITICO. Justices are expected to release a final opinion on the matter soon.

“A health care practitioner may not be scheduled for or assigned to directly or indirectly perform, facilitate, or participate in an abortion unless the practitioner first affirmatively consents in writing to perform, facilitate, or participate in the abortion,” the law states.

LGBTQ+ advocates are also concerned that the law could impact services for LGBTQ+ people, including transgender individuals and patients with HIV/AIDS.

“The bill will impact access to gender-affirming care, contraceptives, HIV medications, fertility care, end of life care, and mental health services,” said SC United for Justice and Equality, a South Carolina activist coalition. “It will allow insurance providers and employers to categorically deny medically necessary services, including services like hormone replacement therapy and PrEP.”

The Human Rights Campaign also previously called on McMaster to veto the bill.

On the other hand, some have expressed support for the legislation.

“The MED Act, H.4776 is supported by over 350 doctors across South Carolina,” said the Palmetto Family Council faith-based non-profit organization. “Enacting the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act will protect religious freedom in medical and counseling professions.”

According to the group, the legislation came in response to Biden administration plans to scrap a similar Trump-era rule. POLITICO reported in April that the administration was looking into rolling the rule back.