TOP STORIES South Carolina Law Allows Healthcare Providers to Refuse Non-Emergency...

South Carolina Law Allows Healthcare Providers to Refuse Non-Emergency Care Based on Conviction

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Seen here in 2020, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recently signed the state’s Medical Ethics and Diversity Act into law. This allows practitioners to refuse non-emergency care that conflicts with their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs, such as family planning or end-of-life care. Critics say the law allows discrimination, especially against LGBTQ people.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images


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Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Seen here in 2020, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recently signed the state’s Medical Ethics and Diversity Act into law. This allows practitioners to refuse non-emergency care that conflicts with their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs, such as family planning or end-of-life care. Critics say the law allows discrimination, especially against LGBTQ people.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

COLOMBIA, South Carolina. Emberlyn Boyter is concerned that doctors in South Carolina now have a legal excuse to deny her medical care. “For over a year, I didn’t feel comfortable going to the doctor,” Boyter says.

That’s when Boiter, 35, began to grow into the woman she thought she should be, and doctors weren’t giving her the hormones she needed.

Boyter bought them online and found an out-of-state doctor who she accesses via telehealth — help she says most of her transgender friends can’t afford.

“The truth is that this is dangerous for many transgender people who do not have access to mainstream healthcare,” Boyter says. She fears the situation will only get worse now that the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act has been signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster.

The new law allows health care providers to refuse non-emergency care that is contrary to their religious, moral or ethical beliefs. Supporters say it protects doctors, nurses and medical students from being forced to violate their conscience. However, critics call the law a license to discriminate, especially against LGBTQ people.

“This is America, where you should have the freedom to say no to what you don’t believe,” said South Carolina Senator Larry Grooms, who campaigned for the law.

The law gives medical practitioners the right to refuse any non-emergency service to which they object on moral grounds, such as family planning, nursing, or prescribing drugs. The grooms insist that the bill does not discriminate, explaining that “it is based on the procedure, not on the patients.”

But Ivy Hill, director of the public health program for the LGBTQ rights campaign Southern Equality Campaign, says you can’t separate a person from the medical procedure they need.

“It’s absolutely aimed at people,” says Hill.

Hill says the bill adds another barrier to health care that LGBTQ people already lack, especially in rural South Carolina. In fact, Hills says it’s so difficult that the Southern Equality Campaign has created a directory of LGBTQ-friendly healthcare facilities in the South, inspired by green book what black people used to seek services when faced with discriminatory laws.

“These are the real people in our community who need help and care,” Hill says.

The doctor not listed is Alex Duvall, a Christian family doctor practicing in coastal Georgetown, South Carolina. He wrote to legislators to support the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act while it was before the legislature.

“Anything that is considered immoral behavior, I cannot endorse or help them engage in it,” Duval says, such as prescribing hormone therapy to transgender patients.

He is pleased that the new law protects him from being sued or fired for adhering to his religious beliefs, and says patients can still receive sex-confirming hormone treatment elsewhere, although the new law does not require him to provide a referral.

“This is a battle of conscience. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about and love your patients, or that you want to do your best for them,” says Duvall.

The new law states that “the right of conscience is a fundamental and inalienable right.” But Allen Cheney, director of legal advocacy for the South Carolina ACLU, counters that discrimination is discrimination. “Saying that your conscience forces your discrimination does not make it legal,” Cheney says.

He expects the law to be challenged because discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited by federal law. The American Civil Liberties Union disputes a similar medical conscience clause in Ohio.

A group of 50 medical practitioners have petitioned the Governor of South Carolina to veto the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act.

Dr. Elizabeth Mack of the American Academy of Pediatrics testified against this. She says health care should be based on science, not belief.

“Evidence supports gender-affirming care, dignified end-of-life care, and contraception,” Mack says. “We might think these things are contradictory, but the evidence does support it.”

The Human Rights Campaign said in a written statement that the new law negatively impacts health care for all South Carolina residents, including members of the LGBT community. “This dangerously legitimizes the non-medical opinions of healthcare providers, healthcare providers, and even insurance companies at the expense of critical patient care, endangering the health and safety of all South Carolina residents,” said Sarah Warbelow, Human Rights Campaign legal director.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group, thanks McMaster for signing the bill. “Patients are best served by medical practitioners who can act on their vow to do no harm. The MED Act ensures that healthcare professionals will not be forced to violate this oath by being required to participate in certain procedures or treatments that violate their ethical, moral or religious beliefs,” Senior Counsel Matt Sharpe said in a written statement.

For some, like Amberline Boyter, the help doctors can refuse under the new law means life or death. If Boyter can’t get sex-confirming hormones, she says, “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this will kill me.”

She still wants to find a doctor so she can see him in person, not online. But she hesitates because, she says, being denied legal custody would be too painful.

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