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CT proposal would ban religious objections to reproductive care


CT proposal would ban religious objections to reproductive care

Feb 28, 2024 | 1:30 pm ET
By Jenna Carlesso
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, is one of several lawmakers who recently unveiled legislative priorities for reproductive rights. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CT MIRROR

Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, is one of several lawmakers who recently unveiled legislative priorities for reproductive rights. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CT MIRROR

Reproductive rights advocates are eyeing a change in state law that would no longer allow medical providers to deny a patient reproductive health care based on a religious or conscientious objection.

The proposal is one of several outlined recently by the legislature’s Reproductive Rights Caucus and Reproductive Equity Now, an advocacy organization.

“Refusal laws allow any provider or health care professional involved … to refuse care based on religious or conscientious objections,” said Rep. Aimee Berger-Girvalo, D-Ridgefield. “Refusal has a serious impact on people, especially those who live in rural areas, who have lower incomes or who, in many instances, only have access to religiously affiliated health care systems.”

“To combat these refusal laws in the state, Connecticut can act to ensure health care institutions, such as religiously affiliated hospitals, do not prohibit providers from providing medically accurate information regarding a patient’s health status, counseling, and referrals for care that may not align with an institution’s moral or religious beliefs,” officials from Reproductive Equity Now wrote in a memo that includes their legislative priorities.

“Last session, Connecticut took historic action to expand access to reproductive health care,” said Liz Gustafson, Connecticut state director for Reproductive Equity Now. “Yet, in a post-Roe America, there is still work to be done.”

Some anti-abortion advocates called the proposal an “assault” on Catholic health care providers.

Connecticut is home to several Catholic hospitals. Trinity Health operates Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford and Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury.

“They’re talking about forcing religious institutions in this state to violate their own faith,” said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut. “That would be a huge battle, if they’re going to try to do that. What it sounded like to me was a direct assault, specifically, on the mission of Catholic hospitals in the state.

“I think what they’re trying to do is force Catholic institutions to violate their own mission. And if they are successful, it would destroy Catholic health care in Connecticut.”

Chris Healy, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said his organization would “vigorously oppose” the change in refusal laws.

“It is morally obtuse and unconstitutional to require a health care provider to perform an abortion or any medical procedure that conflicts with their religious rights as well as the religious tenets of the provider,” he said. “There are plenty of options available to women, but the abortion lobby can’t control their extremism and want to dictate to people of faith. Catholic hospitals are the targets, and we will vigorously oppose it to protect the religious rights of dedicated health care workers.”

Reproductive rights advocates have also recommended expanding access to fertility care, shielding doctors who prescribe medication abortion through telehealth to out-of-state residents and increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rate for abortion services.

They are calling for $3 million more a year to boost the Medicaid reimbursement rate, which they say has not been increased since 2008. Advocates are also seeking another $300,000 annually to “equalize” the Medicaid rate for family planning, so doctors who provide care in clinics can make the same as private practice gynecology and obstetrics physicians.

“At this point, in our state, we know that labor costs have increased, health insurance has risen and cybersecurity costs have been on the rise, and we have not increased these rates since 2008,” said Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the Human Services Committee. “As Connecticut continues to serve individuals, both here and coming from out of state, we want to ensure we provide the much-needed support and relief to our reproductive health care providers.”

The proposals also include expanding access to fertility coverage for LGBTQ+ residents and single people by updating the definition of “infertility” in state statute.

“The implication of the ‘infertility model’ is that you have to prove you’re infertile” to get coverage, said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford. “You have to be trying for a certain amount of time. And, obviously, there are lots of people for whom that does not make sense.”

The measure would follow a similar policy instituted recently for people on the state employee health plan.

“The law hasn’t caught up to today’s society,” said Rep. Marcus Brown, D-Bridgeport. “I want to be clear that single women and LGBTQ+ folks are vital to our economy and vital to our society, yet we don’t offer them the same benefits as we do heterosexual couples. What we aim to do with this piece of legislation is to bring that dignity back.”

Another proposal would shield providers who prescribe medication abortion through telehealth to patients regardless of what state they live in.

“Under most circumstances, our laws around health care in this state require that the patient be located in Connecticut,” Blumenthal said. “But in the case of telehealth, the provider has no way to verify for sure the patient is here in Connecticut. We want to make sure, as the interstate and national conversation on this develops, our providers are protected as they provide telehealth care that is legal in the state of Connecticut. Our proposal would resolve that ambiguity.”

Senate Democrats have floated the concept of a constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution, though Gilchrest said it is not one of the Reproductive Rights Caucus’ priorities.

“We still don’t believe it’s necessary,” she said.

Gilchrest said the advocates’ recommendations are timely.

“Providers are telling us they’ve seen an increase in individuals seeking access to abortion, both within the state and coming to Connecticut, and their costs have continued to rise — security costs, health care costs — yet we have not increased how much we reimburse them for the abortion procedure. … They’re losing money.

“They’re not turning anyone away, but it does delay care. There are waits. And with a time-sensitive procedure like abortion, we want to ensure folks can get access right away.”

Healy said he doesn’t see a clear need to raise the Medicaid rates.

“I don’t understand what the demonstrated need is to pay abortionists more than they make now,” he said. “We’re sort of against that as a general principle.”