Contraceptive Coverage and the Balance Between Conscience and Access

Ronit Y. Stahl,PhD; Holly Fernandez Lynch, JD, MBE

When the Obama administration included contraception in the essential benefits package to be covered by employer-sponsored health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, it sought to preserve access for women while addressing the concerns of employers with religious objections. Although the accommodations and exemptions were not enough for some employers, balance was the ultimate goal. This also was reflected in Zubik v Burwell, the Supreme Court’s most recent decision on the matter; on May 16, 2016, the justices remanded the litigants to the lower court so they could be afforded the opportunity to reach a compromise between religious exercise and seamless contraceptive coverage. No further compromise was forthcoming.

Now the Trump administration has rejected balance as a worthwhile goal.1 Its new contraceptive coverage rules, released on October 6, 2017, prioritize conscientious objection over access.2,3 The rules take effect immediately, and new legal challenges, this time on behalf of patients rather than objecting employers, have already begun.4 The new rules preserve the default requirement that employers must include free access to contraceptives as part of their insurance plans. However, the rules now exempt employers with religious or moral objections to contraceptives, without requiring any alternative approaches to ensure that beneficiaries can obtain contraceptives at no cost.2,3
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Stahl RY, Lynch HF. Contraceptive Coverage and the Balance Between Conscience and Access. JAMA. Published online October 19, 2017. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.17086

Canada’s summer of discontent: euthanasia practitioners warn of nationwide “crisis”

Shortage of euthanasia practitioners “a real problem”

Sean Murphy*

There were 803 euthanasia/assisted suicide (EAS) deaths in Canada during the first six months after the procedures were legalized. In the second half of the first year (ending in June, 2017) there were 1,179 — a 46.8% increase, and about 0.9% of all deaths. Health Canada correctly states that the latter figure falls within the range found in other jurisdictions where euthanasia/assisted suicide are legal, but the Canadian EAS death rate in the first year was not reached by Belgium for seven to eight years. The dramatic increase of EAS deaths in the last half of the first year would have had a direct impact on EAS practitioners, and this may be why they ended the first year by sounding the alarm about access to the service. . . .[Full text]

When Religious Freedom Clashes with Access to Care

N Engl J Med 2014; 371:596-599 August 14, 2014 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1407965


I. Glenn Cohen, J.D., Holly Fernandez Lynch, J.D., M.Bioethics, and Gregory D. Curfman, M.D.

At the tail end of this year’s Supreme Court term, religious freedom came into sharp conflict with the government’s interest in providing affordable access to health care. In a consolidated opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell (collectively known as Hobby Lobby) delivered on June 30, the Court sided with religious freedom, highlighting the limitations of our employment-based health insurance system.

Hobby Lobby centered on the contraceptives-coverage mandate, which derived from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandate that many employers offer insurance coverage of certain “essential” health benefits, including coverage of “preventive” services without patient copayments or deductibles. The ACA authorized the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to define the scope of those preventive services, a task it delegated to the Institute of Medicine, whose list included all 20 contraceptive agents approved by the Food and Drug Administration. HHS articulated various justifications for the resulting mandate, including the fact that many Americans have difficulty affording contraceptives despite their widespread use and the goal of avoiding a disproportionate financial burden on women. Under the regulation, churches are exempt from covering contraception for their employees, and nonprofit religious organizations may apply for an “accommodation,” which shifts to their insurance companies (or other third parties) the responsibility for providing free access. However, HHS made no exception for for-profit, secular businesses with religious owners. [Full text]

Redefining the Practice of Medicine- Euthanasia in Quebec, Part 7: Refusing to Kill


nursewearyIt is important identify problems that the Act poses for those who object to euthanasia for reasons of conscience, and to consider how objecting health care workers might avoid or respond to coercion by the government and the state medical and legal establishments.  The goal here is to ensure that conscientious objectors to euthanasia will be able to continue to work in health care without becoming complicit in what they consider to be wrongdoing.

Physicians may refuse to provide euthanasia if the patient is legally ineligible, and for other reasons, including conscientious objection.  ARELC requires physicians who refuse to provide euthanasia for any reason other than non-eligibility to notify a designated adminstrator, who then becomes responsible for finding a MAD physician.  The idea is to have the institution or health care system completely relieve the physician of responsibility for facilitating the procedure.

It would be preferable to end the involvement of the objecting physician with refusal, accompanied by a suggestion that the patient will have to look for assistance from other sources.  This might be achieved if objecting physicians were to notify both executive directors and patients in advance that they will not provide or facilitate euthanasia.

A more sensitive problem attends the requirement that an objecting physician forward  a euthanasia request form to the designated administrator, since that is more clearly connected to the ulitmate killing of a patient.  Since the requirement to forward the request applies only if it has been given to the physician, this might be avoided if the objecting physician made his position clear in advance, and/or refused to accept such a request.  Such complications could avoided if administrators were to adopt a policy to the effect that a health care professional who witnesses and countersigns a euthanasia request to arrange for MAD services is responsible for arranging them.

The protection of conscience provision in ARELC distinguishes physicians from other health professionals, providing less protection for physicians than for others.  Other health care professionals may refuse to “take part” (participate) in killing a patient for reasons of conscience.  Physicians may refuse only “to administer” euthanasia – a very specific action –  which seems to suggest that they are expected to participate in other ways.

Some Quebec physicians may be unwilling to provide euthanasia while the criminal law stands, even if they do not object to the procedure. Quebec’s Attorney General may be unwilling to provide the extraordinary kind of immunity sought by physicians, which exceeds what was recommended by the Select Committee on Dying with Dignity, and some physicians may be unwilling to provide euthanasia without it.

Finally, as long as euthanasia remains a criminal offence, physicians or other entities responsible for issuing or administering MAD guidelines may respond to requests for euthanasia precisely as they would respond to requests to become involved in first degree murder: with total refusal to co-operate.  Even a partial  and scattered response of this kind would likely be administratively troublesome.

Patients may lodge complaints against physicians who refuse to provide or facilitate euthanasia with institutions and the regulatory authority, regardless of the reasons for refusal. [Full Text]

Discrimination at the doctor’s office

New England Journal of Medicine


Holly Fernandez Lynch

Doctors dedicate themselves to helping others. But how selective can they be in deciding whom to help? Recent years have seen some highly publicized examples of doctors who reject patients not because of time constraints or limited expertise but on far more questionable grounds, including the patient’s sexual orientation, parents’ unwillingness to vaccinate (in surveys, as many as 30% of pediatricians say they have asked families to leave their practice for this reason), and most recently, the patient’s weight. [Read more . . .]