- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama lawmakers and social conservatives want to allow most health care workers to opt out of participating in abortions and other procedures to which they have a personal objection.

Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, said the latest version of her “conscience-protection” measure would let health care workers object in writing to abortions, embryonic stem cell research, cloning research and sterilization procedures. The employees could assert that certain practices violate their religious, moral or ethical standards. Employers then could not punish the employees.

House Bill 31 cleared the Health Committee on Wednesday, with two dissenting votes from Democrats John Knight, of Montgomery, and Laura Hall, of Huntsville.

Similar versions have passed the full House in recent years but died in the Senate, more because of general gridlock than actual opposition to the proposal.

Nordgren told her colleagues that her latest effort comes after working with physicians and the Alabama Hospital Association to address their concerns.

The bill does not apply to workers at licensed abortion clinics. It also requires an employee in a life-threatening case to stay on the job until a replacement is available. Nordgren said those provisions are enough to protect women’s health care rights. She also noted that 47 other states have some kind of specific conscience protections.

Eric Johnston of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition told lawmakers that the bill will prevent discrimination. “We all have our conscience and moral beliefs, whatever they’re based on,” Johnston said. “The worst kind of discrimination is being forced to do something that violates that conscience.”

But opponents have said the proposal still threaten a woman’s access to sound care. “If someone’s political agenda is disguised as religious zeal then the patient has no trust” in their quality of care, said JoAnn Cummings of Decatur. “If any employee objects to your decision or your medical need, they can simply refuse to do their job.”

Cummings said she worries that the law could also be used for pharmacists or their aides to deny prescriptions to emergency contraception, even if it is not explicitly covered by the law.

Michael Hanson of Equality Alabama, a gay rights organization, said the bill could be the first step in allowing medical professionals to deny services to anyone whose lifestyle the health care employee finds objectionable.

In separate action, the committee passed a bill that would make certain volunteer caregivers immune from civil lawsuits related to the care they provide. Rep. April Weaver, R-Alabaster, said House Bill 16 is meant to protect people who, in good faith, help a primary caregiver of a person who has a disability or chronic illness.

Both bills now move to the full House, where they are expected to pass and advance to the Senate.

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