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As Idaho Law Takes Effect, Measures Are ‘Area of Continuing Legal Controversy’

For Some, ‘Conscience Clause’ Gives Pause

“The reach of conscience clauses and how they are to be interpreted in light of patient rights is an area of continuing legal controversy.”

On Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, guaranteeing a woman’s right to an abortion. Within weeks, Congress enacted the first ever so-called “conscience clause.”

Such clauses protect health care providers from liability for refusing to perform services that, though legal, they consider repugnant to their religious or moral values.

This March, Idaho’s legislature approved the Freedom of Conscience for Health Care Professionals Act, expanding that state’s conscience clause to preclude all licensed health care professionals — including clinical social workers — from having to counsel, advise, perform, dispense or assist in any health care services that violate their religious, moral or ethical principles, such as abortion.

Idaho isn’t alone in allowing providers to refuse services over matters of conscience. Forty-six states specifically exempt individual health care providers from having to perform abortion services if doing so goes against their conscience, according to statistics compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that tracks sexual and reproductive health issues.

However, Idaho’s conscience clause, effective July 1, goes much further to state that health care providers don’t even have to offer a referral for services they themselves are unwilling to perform.

That has NASW Idaho Chapter Executive Director Delmar Stone concerned.

“It’s difficult enough for women to find reproductive health care services in our state,” Stone told NASW News. “This law is yet another road block.”

In Idaho, a mostly rural state with huge stretches of medically underserved areas, a health care professional’s refusal to provide services may be tantamount to a complete denial of care for the patient because of the lack of proximity to a willing provider.

Stone, who lobbied against the law, also is concerned about the potential for social workers to run roughshod over the profession’s code of ethics.

“Social workers may use the law to avoid making decisions based on ethical principles, and, instead, act out of religious doctrine in governing their professional behavior,” he noted.

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