The United States Constitution protects religious freedom. Although the nation is historically Judeo-Christian, people of all faiths practice their religions throughout the American landscape. In the last half-century, federal and state laws and policies increasingly bolstered religious protections, especially in medicine. Conscience laws allow medical practitioners to refuse medical care under certain circumstances when their religious beliefs pose a conflict. For example, many physicians refuse abortion care on conscience grounds. However, denying medical care on religious grounds may harm patients and complicate medical malpractice lawsuits.
How Religion can Interfere with Medical Treatment
Medical procedures impacted by religion include sterilization procedures, abortions, contraception, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, vaccinations, and gender dysmorphia treatment. For example, Catholic hospitals may be more inclined by policy to deny patients a tubal ligation or abortion based on religious grounds. Catholic hospitals may prohibit procedures that have a direct effect on the fetus. Likewise, a pharmacist may refuse to fill a prescription for contraception or abortion.
However, even secular hospitals may employ physicians with religious beliefs that conflict with patient health emergencies, such as emergency treatment for ectopic pregnancy. For example, a patient needing urgent treatment for an ectopic pregnancy may have the fallopian tube carrying the embryo removed rather than flushing out the embryo with a drug because a physician’s religious beliefs do not allow what is, in essence, an abortion. In fact, any procedures that affect a fetus may be objectionable despite the detrimental health effects on the pregnant individual.
Religious Beliefs that Commonly Impact Healthcare Decisions
Religious beliefs about the sanctity of life and when life begins more directly impact reproductive care. However, the general population may also be in jeopardy when religious beliefs about the body as a sacred temple conflict with the recommendations of healthcare agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control. Parents who object to vaccinations for their children on religious grounds pose a serious concern for physicians and scientists who vaccinate children against preventable fatal diseases, such as measles. Even medical professionals who forego certain vaccinations on religious grounds may jeopardize those who are vulnerable to severe illness or death from the disease.
When Conflicts Arise Between Religion and Medicine
The laws protecting the religious rights of individuals often conflict with common law negligence and medical malpractice. Federal laws protect medical professionals refusing medical care on religious grounds. For example, the Coates-Snow Amendment (42 USC §300a-7(c) (2018)) prevents government discrimination against hospitals and educational programs that refuse to perform or educate physicians about abortion care or referrals to abortion providers due to religion.
In fact, federal and state laws shield conscientious objectors in the medical profession, including doctors, nurses, and hospitals, from the consequences of their refusal to act or provide medical care objectionable on religious grounds. Competing federal laws, such as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), were intended to protect patients from being turned away from emergency rooms before stabilizing them, regardless of their ability to pay. In the case of pregnant women, the EMTALA requires a medical screening and, if doctors determine that the patient has an emergency medical condition, stabilizing the patient. However, this law in particular was recently the source of a legal dispute between the states of Texas and Idaho, and the United State Department of Health and Human Services. According to EMTALA, if the stabilizing treatment for a pregnant woman is an abortion, then the physician is obligated to provide said treatment. Whether EMTALA preempts state laws to the contrary is an issue taken up to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision.
Difference Between Medical Negligence and Decisions Based on Religious Conscience
Generally speaking, medical malpractice is negligent medical care measured by what other similarly situated practitioners would generally do under similar circumstances. For instance, if the standard procedure for ectopic pregnancies is to remove the embryo from the fallopian tube with medication, then a doctor who removes the tube instead may commit malpractice when the woman is unable to conceive again due to the missing tube. Of course, this is a far different scenario than refusing to inform or provide a pregnant woman with the appropriate medication indicated in a case of ectopic pregnancy due to a treating physician’s religious beliefs. The complex interaction between the standard of care in a given medical situation, and the doctor’s or the patient’s healthcare decisions driven by religious beliefs, cannot be understated.
In sum, a medical malpractice action arising from a medical professional’s refusal to perform standard procedures, advise a patient, or refer them to non-objecting medical professionals depends on state and federal laws, some of which are currently evolving. According to conscience protection laws, negligence due to non-standard care in one state may not be considered medical malpractice. Since various state laws or federal law may afford relief to victims of medical malpractice despite existing conscience laws, you may have a remedy. However, your options may be limited when it comes to filing suit against a physician or a hospital.
Find Clarity with Assistance from a Medical Malpractice Attorney
Since the line is incredibly blurry when religion and medical malpractice collide, it is advisable to consult with a knowledgeable medical malpractice attorney to be certain. The competing state and federal laws are complex and confusing. Fronzuto Law Group is a team of legal professionals in the medical malpractice field with deep understanding of the legal framework governing common and statutory law affecting medical malpractice claims. If you have questions regarding a potential lawsuit in New Jersey, contact our medical malpractice lawyers to help determine whether you have a viable claim.
Ascertaining whether you or an injured loved one has a prosecutable malpractice claim is within our daily practice and we utilize decades of experience to analyze each individual case. Contact our medical malpractice attorneys at 973-435-4551 to find out whether you may be eligible to receive compensation.