Abortion refusal laws are not about religion, but about control

Getty Images

Cultural commentary, lawsuits and court cases on religious and moral exemptions and refusals have been on the rise and have garnered primetime coverage across the country. The main point of concern — to those seeking expanded refusal rights — is the threat they see of doctors and nurses being forced to perform abortions, transgender consultations, STI tests or any other routine and normal health-care practice they don’t agree with. 

But doctors and nurses are already protected from performing abortions and other procedures they object to. In fact, the fear, as baseless and discriminatory as it may be, has been a forceful reason why abortion care has been pushed into their own clinics.

{mosads}Isolating abortion providers from the medical community has been the longstanding strategy to limit resources and access to these providers. The ownership of hospitals by religious organizations has further pushed providing abortion care — even at serious and fatal risks to the woman — out to independent clinics with no or few connections to the hospital.


But abortion care is not any different from any other private medical treatment. In fact, it’s just that. Abortion is health care.

What I think I find most puzzling is the push to alleviate doctors and nurses from performing procedures they don’t want to do. What about alleviating the burden of an unwanted pregnancy from a woman? What about the oath to do no harm as a doctor?

Why does a doctor or a pharmacist have more rights to refuse treatment or to fill a prescription than the other person who seeks the health-care option that’s right for them?

It’s because the right to refuse is about control, not religion.

Forcing a doctor to perform a procedure they do not agree with or do not wish to perform is not legal, period. They have the right to practice in the many fields that do not include procedures they disagree with. If you have a problem with abortion, become a podiatrist.

Another thing to note is that while doctors are never forced to perform procedures that they morally or religiously object to, they may not be able provide the best care of their patients. Any doctor whose own moral convictions outweighs the patient’s needs tarnishes the medical community as a whole.

Conscientious objections in medicine utilize the attending medical practitioner’s position of trust and authority to impose their personal beliefs on patients, who are completely dependent on them for health care. The dynamic between doctor and patient is inherently unbalanced. Moreover, in rural and underserved communities it may be worse. Patients may have no other health-care options, as the conscientious objector may be the only provider for miles.

Abortion patients and LGBTQ patients are often denied services by these professionals or institutions simply on the basis of who they are or the choices that they’ve made. This is systemic discrimination at a foundational level.

Seemingly, President Trump’s religious liberty policy shifts are about controlling people. His most recent policy change — barring federal money from any clinic that performs abortions or any facility that refers a patient or discusses abortion as a health-care option — is a domestic gag rule. It seeks to make abortion even less accessible by holding the medical community hostage to federal funding.

Religious liberty, as specified in the First Amendment, allows the free practice of religion — so long as the practice of that religion does no harm to others. That is the foundation of religious freedom in this country and the weaponization of religious exceptions and “conscience objections” in medicine do harm people. Medical professionals take an oath promising to do the exact opposite.

By weaponizing protections for religious objections, this administration is  denying constitutionally protected rights that are afforded to all Americans. There is nothing religious or moral about refusing care and referrals to patients.

We need to recognize that any further exemptions from a profession chosen by an individual is granting special rights to those seeking to discriminate. Conscientious objections to providing full and accurate health care to patients is not about protecting religious freedom, it’s about power and control.

Julie A. Burkhart is the founder and CEO of Trust Women Foundation. Trust Women opens clinics that provide abortion care in underserved communities so that all women can make their own decisions about their healthcare. Follow her on Twitter @julieburkhart. 

Tags abortion refusal Donald Trump Health Health care

More Healthcare News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video