Despite bipartisan opposition primarily focusing on end-of-life services, the health care workers “conscience bill,” which purportedly lets professionals deny making certain medications and services available based on their personal moral beliefs — but which critics say is an attack against birth control for women — passed the Senate on a 21-13 vote.
“The intent of this legislation is not to restrict or limit in any way health care services to women or men in Idaho,” said sponsor Senator Chuck Winder, R-Eagle.
When opponents brought up the fact that rural areas might already have a limited number of health care professionals to choose from, Winder responded that a survey supporters had performed of rural health care providers found that some of them didn’t provide those medications and services anyway.
Critics of the bill brought up problems getting medications that could also act as abortifacients; difficulty in getting emergency contraception, which must be administered within five days, to victims of rape or incest; potentially having to hunt down new medical professionals during already stressful end-of-life situations; and employer-employee issues.
Senator Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, who ended up voting against the bill, asked whether employees would be allowed to ask prospective employees about potential conscience issues during interviews, and use that as a basis for hiring. Winder said he had heard differing opinions but that in a large pharmacy it wouldn’t be an issue.
Senator Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, who also voted against the bill, expressed concern about “overly broad” language and that patients in smaller communities might not be aware of which medical providers might not be providing them with complete information about their options.
Senator Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, voted no due to the inclusion of the end-of-life language in the bill, as did Senator Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, saying it was “troubling” to her that issues such as stem cell research and end-of-life ended up in a discussion about abortion and contraceptives, and that it invited lawsuits. “It’s poorly written, it mixes issues, and it ignores rural issues,” she said.
Critics of the bill, as well as last year’s attempt to pass a similar bill, pointed out that no women of either party supported it, which is why it was significant that Senator Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, quoted Thomas Jefferson before she said “I fully support this bill.”
Part of the issue that arose was whether health care professionals using the provision would disclose to their patients and whether that would affect the information and options they offered to patients. “It was never the intent of the sponsor to try to change in any way what physicians or licensed health care professional disclose,” said Majority Caucus Chair Senator Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian. “That’s not changed.” But several Senators, including Coiner, expressed concern that patients not only wouldn’t be given all the options, but they wouldn’t know they wouldn’t get them. For example, Senator Kate Kelly, D-Boise, who was the only person to vote against the bill in committee, wondered whether a rape victim in the hospital would be informed about the opportunity to obtain emergency contraception. “The people who want to stop all contraception have their foot in the door here,” warned Schroeder.
But largely, opponents of the bill avoided the political hot potato of abortion and emergency contraception, focusing instead on end-of-life issues, with several of them bringing up recent parental deaths and the concern of having to find a different health care provider if one of them uses the conscience provision.
“How long is it going to take us to find that someone else while my mom is in pain?” said Senator Les Bock, D-Boise, who said his 95-year-old mother died recently. “A day? Two days? A week? I’m horrified at the thought that we could have been wrangling for a few days about how my mom, at 95 years of age, was going to die.” The bill was far more far-reaching than any of them could imagine right now, he said.