In a move that could have significant public health ramifications, the Michigan House of Representatives passed the Conscientious Objector Policy Act, a bill that gives health care workers the right to deny medical treatment based on “moral, ethical, or religious grounds,” last week. On one hand, the bill codifies into law one of the fundamental ethical tenets of the medical profession: A doctor should not be compelled, for any reason, to personally provide a course of treatment he is otherwise unwilling to administer. However, although all forms of treatment will remain obligatory for doctors and nurses operating in emergency rooms, this bill is fundamentally dangerous and discriminatory because it could allow health care workers to deny care to prospective patients for a wide variety of reasons, including sexual orientation.
The bill can be viewed as yet another addendum to the recent onslaught of religious fundamentalism sweeping through Michigan. The bill was strongly supported by the Michigan Catholic Conference, arguably because of church positions against abortion and birth control. However, considering the Catholic Church’s strong support for Proposal 2, which banned the state from recognizing gay marriage and civil unions, the bill’s potential to legalize discrimination against homosexuals is troubling. While the bill explicitly bans health care providers from denying services on the basis of the criteria stipulated in the Elliott-Larsen Act — Michigan’s civil rights legislation — there is no provision within that act to protect those with alternative sexual preferences. While homophobia might not have been the reason this bill was proposed or why legislators supported it, the very possibility that this bill could institutionalize bigotry against gays and lesbians in health care means it should not be allowed to advance further. Sexual orientation cannot be a basis for discrimination, especially in regards to health.
Supporters of the bill have argued it will prevent doctors and nurses from being forced to perform a service they would not otherwise wish to perform. While it is ethically wrong to force a doctor to provide a service he does not wish to perform, there is no need for a potentially discriminatory law to ensure this right. Already, doctors can ethically and legally refuse to perform abortions, provide birth control or offer an ethically questionable course of treatment. While this may create public health difficulties, it is nonetheless a right that medical professionals have chosen to consistently honor. Never, however, have doctors had the right to do this bill would enable them to do: Deny treatment to homosexuals.
The bill, which is now heading to the conservative state Senate, will likely be passed into law unless Gov. Jennifer Granholm uses her veto. Granholm should protect the rights of all minorities in Michigan and reject this bill without hesitation.