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Kentucky Bill Creates Sweeping Religious, Ethical Exemptions In Health Care

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AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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Kentucky health care workers who refuse to take part in procedures or dispense medications on ethical or religious grounds would be granted legal protections under legislation opponents are calling "extreme."

As written, Senate Bill 90 would afford legal protections to a wide range of employees working in health care-related fields, from physicians to insurers. Under the measure, those covered could decline to participate in actions that violate their "religious, moral, ethical, or philosophical beliefs."

"It would be the most extreme refusal law in the country, if passed," says Sara Hall, a policy and program associate with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Indiana and Kentucky.

Hall laid out scenarios her organization worries are possible under the proposal. 

"We foresee that patients could have trouble accessing their birth control or a prescription for an antidepressant if their pharmacists objects to that. Also, it's as simple as a receptionist could refuse to admit a patient that's experiencing a miscarriage because they don't want to participate in end-of-pregnancy care," she warned.

Concerned parties also questioned how hospitals and other healthcare facilities could anticipate the ethical objections of new hires prior to putting them on the job, and whether physicians could deny care in emergency situations where patients require immediate attention.

But the lead sponsor, Senator Stephen Meredith, maintained the bill is only meant to safeguard the ability of healthcare workers to exercise their own conscience and provide care consistent with those values and their oaths. 

"[Denying care] is not its intent at all," the Republican told collegues. "It puts health care back in the hands of the people who can make the best judgment about the benefit of their patient, and that's health care providers."

Defenders argued those entering healthcare professions can't predict what ethical questions might arise from new technologies and treatments, including the use of medicinal cannabis.

"Our medical profession is widely divided on that, but in a corporate world where satisfaction of the patient drives a lot of our outcomes, having a patient that's satisfied is not always consistent with being in the best interest of the patient," the senator added.

With Thursday's vote, the bill moves to the full Senate.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.