Should a physician be allowed to turn you away if you’re gay? Sounds like a no-brainer—but not if you live in Michigan.
Michigan’s House of Representatives passed a bill last week that permits doctors and other health care providers to walk away from a procedure, treatment, or prescription that violates their religious beliefs. The Conscientious Objector Policy Act, which was pushed by the state’s Catholic Conference—and opposed by Michigan’s Medical Society—clearly applies to abortions and morning-after pills. But its broad wording could cover other medical situations, such as stem-cell research. The bill bar physicians from denying patients access to contraception, and it forbids discrimination against groups mentioned in the state civil rights law.
Guess which group is excluded from that statute?
“I believe there’s a loophole big enough to drive a Mack truck through,” said Chris Kolb, Michigan’s only openly gay representative. Supporters of the bill are quick to deny this contention—but also loath to add sexual orientation to the bill’s protected categories. “I don’t think this legislation is the way to address that,” Scott Hummel, a Republican lawmaker, told CNN. The Michigan statehouse is dominated by Republicans, which is why Kolb thinks the bill will pass the state senate as well. But the governor, Jennifer Granholm, is a Democrat. She’s regarded as gay friendly, but Kolb says he can’t be sure she will veto the legislation. Granholm’s office released a statement declaring the bill “too broad” as it stands, but adding, “We are sympathetic to this issue and will work with the legislature to develop a version . . . that we all support.”
Perhaps the most disturbing news of all was a Detroit News poll
asking whether the bill should become law even though “some fear this means gays and lesbians could be refused treatment.” Over 53 percent of respondents replied in the affirmative.
Laws exempting doctors from performing abortions exist in some 40 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. But these more sweeping statutes are a frightening new weapon for fundamentalists. In Illinois, the Health Care Right of Conscience Act prohibits discrimination not against patients but against doctors who refuse to offer a broad range of treatments for religious reasons. In neighboring Wisconsin, the governor vetoed a bill on April 21 that would have protected physicians who fail to advise patients of their treatment options, provide a referral, or render care if a life is at risk. Even the instructions in a living will could have been ignored if they violated a doctor’s beliefs.
A right-of-conscience statute in Mississippi has the unexpected distinction of protecting patients from discrimination because of their sexual orientation. That’s more than you can say for Michigan. And the issue is far from academic. During the early years of AIDS, polls showed that a majority of doctors didn’t want to treat gay men. Things have changed for the better—or have they?
Research Assistance: Matthew Phillp
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 2004