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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Health Care Providers’ Religious Objections to Medical Treatment: Legal Issues Related to Religious Discrimination in Employment and Conscience Clause Provisions

Cynthia Brougher
Legislative Attorney

Edward C. Liu
Legislative Attorney


Federal law provides various legal protections for individuals who object for religious reasons to performing certain tasks required by their employer. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and statutory nondiscrimination laws provide general protection to individuals wishing to exercise their religious beliefs without interference from the government or employers. An individual's right of refusal may also be protected by specific legislation known as "conscience clauses." These protections often arise with health care providers, including doctors and pharmacists, who object to assisting with certain reproductive procedures or dispensing birth control. Most often, objections are raised by doctors or hospitals who object to performing abortion procedures because of religious beliefs or affiliations. 

In December 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a final rule to ensure compliance with conscience clauses enacted beginning in the 1970s to protect individuals who object to abortion procedures. The rule delineates the protections offered by the Church Amendment, Section 245 of the Public Health Service Act, and the Weldon Amendment, each of which generally provides that individuals or entities receiving federal funding may not be required to perform abortion procedures if they have religious or moral objections to such procedures. The effect that this regulation would have on the existing legal protections available to those with objections to employment duties based on religion has been controversial. The debate over the extent of protection available to medical providers with religious objections to certain treatments highlights the tension between patients' access to treatment and health providers' religious freedom. 

This report will discuss situations in which religious objections may be raised in health care. The report will examine the legal protections for individuals with religious and moral objections to their employment duties offered by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and federal conscience clauses. Finally, the report will analyze the two sets of protections and how they may affect health care providers who have religious objections to medical procedures. 

In the 111th Congress, health care reform legislation passed in the House (H.R. 3962) and the Senate (H.R. 3590) also contains conscience protections for health care providers' and insurers' objections to abortion. The Senate legislation also provides protections for refusals to participate in assisted suicide. 


Date of Report: January 14, 2010
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R40722
Price: $29.95

Document available electronically as a pdf file or in paper form.
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