JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House of Representatives approved legislation Wednesday that would allow health care workers, medical centers and others to refuse to provide contraception or carry out procedures that violate their religious or ethical beliefs.
Doctors, nurses and other medical workers could not be punished or discriminated against if they refuse to participate in abortions, embryonic stem-cell research or other procedures. Employers and health plan sponsors could not be forced to provide coverage for abortion, contraception or sterilization procedures, and pharmacies would not be required to stock particular medication or devices.
The House passed the measure 117-37, and it now returns to the state Senate where lawmakers either can accept the House's proposal or request negotiations. To send the legislation to Gov. Jay Nixon, both chambers must approve the same version of the bill. Time is running short before the Legislature's mandatory adjournment at 6 p.m. Friday.
House Majority Leader Tim Jones said religious and conscience rights are a "bedrock" principle that Missouri residents demand be protected.
"This is a comprehensive bill that goes far to protect religious freedoms and liberties and conscious rights of workers across this entire state," said Jones, R-Eureka. "Why you would not want to support this is beyond me."
Most of the opposition in the House came from Democratic lawmakers representing districts near St. Louis and Kansas City who argued the legislation would inhibit access to health care for some Missouri residents. Several opponents said it seemed the measure was aimed particularly at birth control.
Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis, said the medical procedures at issue in the legislation would affect women most directly. Speaking with a male opponent of the measure, Newman said: "You will be putting your stamp on what you think I should be doing and also deciding if your religious beliefs will supersede my religious beliefs and my moral convictions."
Rep. Sandy Crawford, who sponsored the legislation in the House, said she would be horrified if she had to participate in some of the medical procedures covered by the measure. Crawford, R-Buffalo, added that nothing would stop Missouri women from purchasing birth control on their own if their insurance did not cover it.
House members folded several pieces into the health care legislation.
The conscious objections for medical workers would shield employees from termination, suspension, demotion and loss wages if they invoke it. Health care institutions such as hospitals, clinics and medical or nursing schools also could refuse to perform procedures to which it has moral objections.
Another component dealing with coverage for contraception, abortion and sterilization arose amid objections to the federal health care law and how President Barack Obama's administration has handled insurance coverage for birth control. St. Louis County Republican Sen. John Lamping, who proposed the legislation, has said business owners and employers should not be forced to pay for medication or procedures they find objectionable.
In addition, the House added an amendment that would allow people enrolled in group health plans to be excluded from paying for insurance coverage of elective abortions.