Committee advances health workers bill

Measure debates the right of pharmacists to refuse services based on conscience.
Thursday, February 16, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A bill that would allow health care professionals the option to not perform certain services on moral grounds advanced in the Missouri House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The Health Care Rights of Conscience Act was approved by the Children and Families Committee in a 7-4 vote, which was split down party lines with Republicans being in the majority.

“Within the health care world there are many professions, and those people should not have to act against their own conscience,” said Ed Martin, attorney for Americans United for Life.

Much of the bill’s controversy regards whether pharmacists should be able to refuse to fill prescriptions, mainly emergency contraception such as Plan B, the morning-after pill.

Martin represents Heather Williams, a pharmacist from St. Charles, formerly employed with Target. Williams was fired for refusing to refer a patient to another Target pharmacy that would fill emergency contraception needs, a store policy for pharmacy employees that have signed a “conscience clause policy.”

Martin said the issue at hand extends beyond health care.

“This is about diversity,” Martin said. “This is about uniting thought on worker’s rights and the right to life.”

Detractors argue that language in the bill is too broad, stretching beyond contraception and entering into other realms of health care.

“Could conscientious objectors deny patients cancer or AIDS medication simply because they don’t agree with it?” said Rep. Curt Dougherty, D-Independence.

Dougherty counters claims that health care businesses can adequately staff themselves to include those who may object to certain practices or medications and those who may not.

“We can’t define ‘conscience,’ so how can we ever know what you object to until we run up against them at a critical juncture,” he said.

Traci Gleason, director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said the bill has broad ramifications.

“Pharmacists have a duty to fill needs of patients,” Gleason said. “Refusal to do so will ultimately put women at severe risk.”

The bill will next go to a vote on the House floor.

A similar bill in the Senate has been reviewed, but is not as far along as the House version.

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