Nadia N Sawicki
This Article presents the first empirical study of state conscience laws that establish explicit procedural protections for medical providers who refuse to participate in providing reproductive health services, including abortion, sterilization, contraception, and emergency contraception.
Scholarship and public debate about law’s role in protecting health care providers’ conscience rights typically focus on who should be protected, what actions should be protected, and whether there should be any limitations on the exercise of conscience rights. This study, conducted in accordance with best methodological practices from the social sciences for policy surveillance and legal mapping, is the first to provide concrete data on the vital but unanswered question of how these laws actually operate–that is, the precise procedural mechanisms by which laws protect medical providers who decline to provide services that violate their deeply held conscientious beliefs.
This Article demonstrates that state laws vary dramatically in the types of protections they offer. States may immunize health care providers from a range of potential adverse consequences including civil liability, criminal prosecution, professional discipline, employment discrimination, discrimination in educational opportunities, and denial of public or private funding, among others. Of these, immunity from civil liability, or “civil immunity,” is by far the most common procedural protection. In a majority of states, civil immunity is absolute–providing no exceptions in cases of malpractice, denial of emergency treatment, or even patient death. In practice, these laws eliminate patients’ common law right to recover monetary damages when they suffer physical injury as a result of a health care provider’s conscience-based deviation from the standard of care.
While many scholars have examined the impact of conscience laws on patient access to medical care, there has been no comprehensive analysis of these laws’ impact on patients’ right to a tort law remedy when they are denied care. This Article not only raises awareness of the previously unrecognized breadth of protections established by U.S. conscience law, but also challenges basic assumptions about tort law’s ability to remedy harms suffered by victims of medical malpractice in reproductive health care contexts. These findings create an important opportunity for further policy discussion about the scope of health care conscience laws.
Sawicki NN. The Conscience Defense to Malpractice. Calif Law Rev. 2020;108(1255):1255-1316.