A national medical association and Illinois medical professionals today joined together in support of their patients, calling on a federal court to reject a challenge to the State’s health care right of conscience law. The physicians tell the court that without an appropriate balance between the health care needs of patients and the religious beliefs of health care, patients are at risk of serious physical and emotional injury. The physicians ask the court to reject a challenge to patient protections added to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act in 2016. A number of “crisis pregnancy centers” brought the lawsuits.

The challenges come in two cases, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Schneider and Schroeder v. Schneider, currently in federal district court in Chicago. The brief was filed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians, along with several individual physicians

The physicians’ brief explains that medical professionals “must give patients all relevant information about their medical circumstances and risks, benefits and alternatives to their medical options.  Without this information, patients cannot give informed consent, a central tenet of medical law and ethics.”  

The Health Care Right of Conscience Act in Illinois generally protects health care providers from liability and professional discipline for withholding care because of a religious or conscience-based belief. For years, that protection had been interpreted broadly, providing almost no protection for patients in Illinois. State legislators learned that this lack of balance had harmed many patients and put countless others at risk.  

In 2016, the Illinois General Assembly amended HCRCA to adjust that balance by requiring health care providers to have policies in place to ensure that patients receive enough information about their conditions and treatment options to make intelligent choices about their care. Unless such policies are adopted and followed, providers may not claim the protections of HCRCA when denial of treatment leads to injury. During the legislative process, sponsors consulted with religious health care providers and adjusted the language to address their concerns.    

The physicians’ brief points out the real harm that comes when patients are not provided with information about their care or where to seek the care they need.  The brief contains four detailed stories of patients who were harmed after being denied care. 

One such narrative focuses on Mindy Swank, who was 20 weeks into her second pregnancy when her water broke prematurely.  She quickly learned that the fetus would not survive the pregnancy owing to severe anomalies. Doctors told her that continuing to carry the fetus put Mindy’s health and future fertility at risk. She asked her doctor to terminate the pregnancy, only to learn that they would not provide the procedure because of the hospital’s religious affiliation. She tried to go elsewhere, but was unable to have the procedure covered by insurance because the hospital refused to share adequate records.  

Mindy waited weeks, until one morning she woke up bleeding. Told she was not “sick enough” for the doctors to induce the pregnancy, she was forced to wait - bleeding and feverish - for weeks before she finally got the care she needed.  

The physicians note that stories like Mindy’s make clear why balancing the interests of the patient with the interest of the health care provider - as done in the amendments to HCRCA - is so necessary.