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Ill. judge grants CPCs' request to block referral rule

An Illinois judge on Tuesday ruled that the state cannot require a group of clinics to follow an amendment (PA 099-0690) to the state's Health Care Right of Conscience Act while the group's lawsuit against the amendment continues, the Chicago Tribune reports (Schencker, Chicago Tribune, 12/21).

Law details

The amended law is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

The amendment changes the state's Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which allows institutions and employees to refuse to provide certain services because of ethical and religious reasons. According to experts, objections under the law can include opposition to providing contraception, gender transition-related care or certain end-of-life services. Specifically, the law requires health care providers to share information about other health care facilities with a patient in writing, or refer or transfer the patient to that facility.

Health care providers would only have to provide the information if a patient requested the denied service. Under the law, health care providers are not required to confirm that other facilities provide the unmet services; they only need to have "reasonable belief" that they do.

The change applies to all health care facilities in the state. However, the law has particular relevance for Catholic-affiliated hospitals, which handle about 25 percent of all admissions in the state.

Legal challenges

In August, after Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) signed the amendment, two crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) and a physician who opposes abortion rights filed suit over the legislation. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed the lawsuit on behalf of Pregnancy Care Center, a CPC in Rockford, Illinois; Aid for Women, a Chicago-based not-for-profit that operates six CPCs and two residential programs; and Anthony Caruso, a physician who works at A Bella Baby OBGYN and serves as medical director for several CPCs in the state.

The lawsuit seeks to bar the state from penalizing any physician or medical center staff member who opts not to comply with the amended law because of their personal objection to abortion rights.

In October, ADF filed a separate lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, Tri-County Crisis Pregnancy Center, the Life Center, Mosaic Pregnancy & Health Centers and Tina Gingrich, a physician who works at the Maryville Women's Center and serves as the medical director of Mosaic. An initial hearing in that lawsuit is scheduled for next month.

Oral arguments

Earlier this month, Judge Eugene Doherty heard oral arguments in the lawsuit involving Pregnancy Care Center, Aid for Women and Caruso.

During the arguments, Matt Bowman, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, claimed that the amended law violates antiabortion-rights providers' right to free speech. In addition, he claimed the state had not adequately demonstrated that women are harmed by not receiving such information from their providers.

Assistant Attorney General Sarah Newman defended the amended law. She explained that "[t]he statute ... is only triggered if the person asks for the information." Further, Newman said professional speech can be regulated. According to Newman, the law was amended "to make sure that the patient's rights are not trampled on because of ... religious objection[s]" (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/12).

In court documents, the state detailed how patients could be harmed if the law is not enforced. "If providers send patients away without all of the relevant information about their condition, patients may not know that they should seek additional information from another provider," state attorneys wrote, adding, "Patients generally believe that their doctors are telling them everything, and therefore may not know that they should ask about additional treatment options."

For instance, attorneys in the documents wrote that a woman with a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy might not know that an abortion is necessary to save her life, while a teenager who has been raped might not be informed about the availability of emergency contraception (Chicago Tribune, 12/21).

Ruling details

On Tuesday, Doherty temporarily blocked the amended law, ruling that the plaintiffs "raised a fair question as to whether their right to be free from government compelled speech is violated."

The order will remain in place until the case is decided or superseded by a new court order (AP/Sacramento Bee, 12/21). The order does not bar the state from enforcing the rule against providers not involved in the lawsuit.

Separately, Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women's Law Center, defended the amendment, noting that Illinois' law allowing providers to refuse abortion care is one of the broadest of its kind in the country. "It's fair to characterize Illinois and this circumstance as unique," she said (Chicago Tribune, 12/21).