LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — The Arkansas Legislature on Thursday approved a bill allowing doctors to refuse to treat someone due to religious or moral objections, sending it to the governor over complaints that would create a blanket right to discriminate against patients.
The majority-Republican Senate voted 25-6 for the bill, which says health care workers and institutions have the right to not participate in non-emergency treatments that violate their conscience. The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has not said whether he supports the measure.
Opponents of the bill have called it a part of a trend of measures discriminating against LGBTQ people that are advancing in the Legislature. They include a measure endorsed by a House committee earlier Thursday that will prohibit transgender girls and women from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity.
“In the midst of a devastating and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we should be expanding access to health care and making it more affordable, not advancing bills that make it harder for LGBTQ Arkansans to receive the care they need,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David, who urged Hutchinson to veto the measure.
The conscience provision has also drawn opposition from the state’s business community, including the state Chamber of Commerce.
With the bill, “we position ourselves as being not open and welcoming like we’ve portrayed ourselves to be,” Randy Zook, the chamber’s president and CEO, said.
Supporters of the bill said that under the measure providers could cite conscience for not performing types of treatment, but couldn’t use it for targeting specific groups of patients.
“Driving out doctors, nurses, and other medical providers because of their faith means fewer healthcare options for patients at a time when our nation’s healthcare system is overstretched and experiencing a dire shortage of providers,” Stephanie Nichols, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement.
Hutchinson opposed a similar proposal that failed before a House panel in 2017, but last month said he believed the current bill addressed an important concern from the public and medical community.
State Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe testified against the 2017 measure, but reversed course and supported the latest objections proposal. Bledsoe, who is also running for lieutenant governor, told lawmakers last month that he believed now there is more of a concern about physicians forced to participate in sex reassignment procedures for transgender people, despite it going against their personal beliefs.
Hutchinson has five days after he receives the conscience bill to take action before it becomes law without his signature. If he vetoes the bill, it takes a simple majority of the Legislature to override.