With a 72-20 House vote on Monday, both chambers of the Arkansas General Assembly have approved a bill allowing medical providers to refuse participation in acts that violate their conscience.
The March 15 vote on the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act was largely along party lines. Two Republicans, Craig Christiansen and Joe Jett, voted against the bill; and seven lawmakers — three Republicans and four Democrats — abstained.
The bill, which was passed by the Senate in February, will return there for the reconciliation of amendments.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he is neutral on the bill, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
The bill would apply conscience protections to medical workers, hospitals, and insurance providers. It would not allow participation in emergency services to be declined. An amendment to the bill removed philosophical beliefs or principles as a basis of conscience, while leaving religious, moral, and ethical beliefs or principles.
“This bill provides a remedy for our medical care providers. It does not discriminate in any way,” Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, a co-sponsor of the bill, said. The bill is supported by state surgeon general Greg Bledsoe.
House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said Arkansas medical providers consciences are not now being violated, and that “there will be some that will use this to discriminate or to make folks feel uncomfortable in a lot of ways. To take one of our liberties, religious freedom, to believe as you wish, and to twist it to infringe on other's rights, even medical rights, is reprehensible."
According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the bill is opposed by abortion and contraception rights supporters, disability rights groups, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, local chapters of the National Association of Social Workers and the American College of Emergency Physicians, and the state chamber of commerce.
Earlier this month, Hutchinson signed into law the Arkansas Unborn Child Protection Act, which bans abortions except when medically necessary to save the life of the mother.
The state legislature is also considering bills to regulate medical abortions and to fund private school vouchers.